Intense Mind Games Found Behind ‘The Wall’ (Movie Review)

There’s something quite commendable about the minimalist nature of The Wall. Seeing director Doug Liman come down from films such as Edge of Tomorrow Live. Die. Repeat. and Jumper for a claustrophobic thriller may or may not just be something of a stylistic exercise in between Tom Cruise adventures, but it is certainly entertaining. Armed with one desert local, minimal production design, two actors and a disembodied voice, here’s a film that manages to stretch a simple premise into pulpy cat and mouse game. Hiding a genre film under the guise of a war movie makes it all the more intriguing.

The setup is pretty good. John Cena and Aaron Taylor-Johnson play two American Army Snipers (SSG Matthews and SGT Issac) coming off of 20 hours of staring at a crime scene in Iraq. The year is 2007, and they are among the soldiers still in the area to help clean up the mess that’s been left behind, following a declaration of U.S. victory. Matthews decides it’s time to go down to the site and secure the area, he’s soon shot and lying unconscious on the open sand. Issac (“Eyes”) attempts recovery and finds himself shot in the knee and taking cover behind a lone wall that looks ready to collapse.

A different film would maybe find a way to stretch this story with nothing more than Isaac’s personal struggle to survive this ordeal, keeping in mind the invisible presence hidden far across the desert field from him. The Wall is a little more willing to give in to its desires to put a face on its villain, or at least a voice. Isaac soon finds himself being taunted and having radio conversation with the professional enemy sniper who has put the two men in jeopardy. Having impersonated a U.S. medevac unit over the radio and established just where he was aiming, Isaac is aware of just how impossible his situation is.

Lasting around 80 minutes, without credits, The Wall has no choice but to keep things moving. There is no drawn out backstory to open the film, just the realization that these two men are on their own. Once the plot kicks into gear, the challenge becomes making this thrilling journey worthwhile and somewhat believable. It is worthwhile, as the setting (the California desert makes for an appropriate Middle East double) and the lead performance do plenty to engage the audience. When not scanning around the scenery, primarily seen from Isaac’s perspective, Johnson holds the camera’s focus, giving us a chance to learn more about him.

As The Wall would be nothing without some introspective drama to help enliven the external threats, it is established that Isaac is suffering guild for a particular reason. Here’s where Dwain Worrell’s script gets a chance to do something, as I’m feeling far happier seeing the existential torment in a trapped character, as opposed to whatever The Wall’s political leanings may be (it’s mostly apolitical, but…). With this aspect, Johnson excels at playing up his different emotional states.

Not hurting is Liman’s filmmaking. While this is more in line with Swingers than Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Liman does seem to be challenging himself to go small to a point. Shooting on Super 16 to go for the gritty aesthetic, he and cinematographer Roman Vasyanov do plenty to keep the film varied. The wall in question is about as run down as it gets, but it takes various shapes over the runtime, which help echo the state of unease Isaac (and the audience) should be in, as things seem more and more hopeless.

There’s little for this film to do outside of its premise, which does mean taking some liberties with keeping everything convincing. Accepting The Wall as a genre thriller helps, because “the talking killer” trope is played to full effect, best enabling a sense of plot momentum for Isaac, who has to be as clever as he can to extend his own life’s runtime. The smart casting, by the way, helps. Having Cena (big, likable, all-American) get taken out of commission for long stretches of time further helps reveal the vulnerability of the remaining hero. Giving them just enough time to play up their camaraderie doesn’t hurt either. If only the conclusion didn’t seem so inevitable.

The Wall has a lot to work with as a premise. Serving as a sort of riff on The Hurt Locker’s fantastic sniper sequence by way of Phone Booth, there is a neat little psychological thriller here, which does well to give Johnson more credibility to build as an actor. The wartime setting makes the film’s genre roots feel like it’s entered a neat reality as well. Without overdoing it on the runtime, there is enough here to be taken in by the thrills (and some body horror). Adding a psychotic game element to it all doesn’t necessarily cheapen anything, but it does help to inform you just what movie you are watching. Adjust your scope accordingly, and you’ll find The Wall manages to stay on target.

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