The Wall: Review

Aaron Taylor-Johnson and John Cena are pinned down by an unseen enemy in Doug Liman’s wartime thriller. Read our review...

Director Doug Liman takes a step back from big-budget escapist fare like 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow and even moderately budgeted material like 2010’s Fair Game for his first full-on war movie, the low-cost and minimalist The Wall. The movie’s cast totals two (plus a couple of voices on radios), with Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Avengers: Age of Ultron) and John Cena (Trainwreck) playing soldiers out on a reconnaissance mission in a remote area of Iraq who come under fire from a well-hidden sniper — the same assassin who gunned down the civilian contractors whose deaths the two were investigating.

With both hit and Cena’s Staff Sergeant Matthews left incapacitated or worse, Johnson’s Sergeant Isaac must scramble for cover behind the only object available: the crumbling remains of a low stone wall. And there he stays, desperately trying to survive, as the mysterious assassin begins a game of psychological cat and mouse that begins to break down the already wounded and terrified young sharpshooter.

Much of The Wall falls on the shoulders of Taylor-Johnson, who spends the bulk of the picture alone, and he carries it off with distinction. He fully inhabits Isaac down to his accent, and effectively portrays a man who is doing his best to hold himself together against incredibly frightening circumstances. Isaac is a simple soldier who obeys orders and doesn’t think too much about it, but while he’s brave he’s no superhero either: he spends a lot of time behind the wall quivering with fear and pain. Although his role is much smaller, Cena, a WWE star, acquits himself quite honorably as well, bringing gravitas and a sense of experience to Isaac’s older commanding officer.

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The set-up is marvelously executed and the initial stages of Isaac’s entrapment behind the wall — which becomes kind of a character itself, complete with its own arc — are also effective, especially the eerie way in which the sniper establishes communication with him. The gunman (voiced by Laith Nakli), who is never seen but may or may not be a killer notorious for the large number of U.S. soldiers he’s taken out, starts an ongoing dialogue with Isaac that reveals something about these two enemies but especially peels away the layers of Isaac’s mind and soul.

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The middle section of the movie probably goes on a bit too long — even for a film that runs just under 90 minutes — and you can sense Liman struggling to do something visually interesting with it. There’s also the sense that the screenplay by Dwain Worrell is trying to tackle the larger issues that the situation hints at, including the long-discredited rationale for being in Iraq in the first place, but years after our official withdrawal from that country these parts of the conversation seem rote and well-worn. The Wall works best when it focuses simply on soldiers trying to stay alive, and Liman excels at showing you the gritty, filthy realism of the situation up close, whether it’s the thick layer of dirt, dust, blood and snot that coats Isaac’s face or his agonizing extraction of a bullet from his leg.

In the end, the performances, the tense, immersive scenario and some surprisingly nihilistic developments win out over the movie’s battle with itself to flesh out its spare yet mostly riveting story with moral arguments we’ve already heard. The Wall works best when it sticks closely to its stripped-down, economic premise, and at its strongest it’s like no war movie you’ve seen in the last decade.

The Wall is out in theaters on Friday (May 12).


3.5 out of 5