Director Doug Liman’s previous film, the Tom Cruise vehicle Edge Of Tomorrow, was a sci-fi action movie steeped in videogame logic: Cruise’s cowardly soldier replays the same level of an alien invasion shooter over and over again until he learns the enemy’s patterns and wins the battle.
In one sense, The Wall‘s setting looks like something out of a Call Of Duty or Gears Of War sequel: fresh-faced soldier Sergeant Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) finds himself stuck behind a dry stone wall in the Iraqi desert and pinned down by an enemy sniper. The wall looks like one of the waist-high bits of cover from Gears Of War; the way it crumbles recalls the first cover shooter of them all, the classic Space Invaders.
Within minutes, however, Liman’s thriller lurches off in a more low-key, intimate direction. Both Isaac and his superior, Staff Sergeant Matthews (John Cena) are badly wounded; Matthews is left stuck out in the open, vulnerable to the sniper’s shots, while Isaac’s hunkered down behind the wall, a bullet in his leg and badly dehydrated. So begins a lean and deadly battle of wits, with the Iraqi sniper, who communicates with Isaac via radio, consistently leaving his quarry outsmarted and outgunned.
Made on a budget of just $3m, The Wall is a marked change of pace for Liman, who since his indie success in the 90s has largely stuck to making expensive thrillers like The Bourne Identity, Mr & Mrs Smith or Edge Of Tomorrow. With its single location and tiny cast – for much of the film, Taylor-Johnson’s the only actor on screen – The Wall recalls Rodrigo Cortes’ superbly claustrophobic thriller, Buried, in which Ryan Reynolds played an American truck driver buried alive in the middle of Iraq.
Like the protagonist in that film, Isaac is forced to rely on his own resourcefulness and cunning, and Taylor-Johnson gives the character a raw vulnerability: not just because he’s physically wounded and caked in sand and dust, but because he’s evidently less smart than the shooter haranguing him through his earpiece.
With the wall of the film’s title providing only the thinnest of barriers between Isaac and the sniper’s bullets, the stage is set for an intense, focused thriller; The Wall inevitably lacks the claustrophobia of Buried, but Liman makes great, evocative use of his desert setting. On one side of the wall, there’s an oil pipeline, vehicles and a huge heap of scrap and detritus; on the other, there’s only a barren landscape, stretching off to infinity. Isaac can’t run, and he can’t fight, either; the sniper being so well hidden that could be almost anywhere. With an absence of incidental music and a colour palette of dirty browns and yellow ochre, The Wall makes an evocative use of its low budget.
Even at just 90 minutes including credits, however, The Wall struggles to maintain the tension it builds up in the opening act. Screenwriter Dwain Worrell has come up with a great concept here, yet the back-and-forth between the US and Iraqi soldier isn’t really gripping enough to carry us through the part of the film where we learn more about both characters. The sniper, it turns out, has a penchant for literature, and refuses to shut up about it – and when he’s not quoting Poe, some of the shooter’s dialogue is disappointingly hackneyed.
At times, The Wall left this writer wondering whether the plot might have been better served without any dialogue at all – the movie already bears a passing resemblance to Steven Spielberg’s classic David-and-Goliath thriller, Duel, which managed to sustain its nail-biting tension over 90 minutes with only the bare minimum of chatter.
The Wall remains an effective showcase for Doug Liman’s talent as a director, though, and the final 20 minutes, where the suspense rises again and the talking takes a back seat, are thoroughly gripping.
The Wall is out now in UK cinemas.