Synopsis – Two American Soldiers are trapped by a lethal sniper, with only an unsteady wall between them.
My Take – Who would have thought that a film maker like Doug Liman, the man behind certain big films like Mr. & Mrs. Smith, The Bourne Identity, Edge of Tomorrow and the upcoming Tom Cruise starrer American Made, could come up with a such a contained antiwar thriller which features just a handful of actors & takes place in just one location. If the recent crop of low-budget films tells us anything, it’s that studios are desperate to ensure that they get a better return on investment than a full-blown, star-studded action spectacle. While this strategy does seem sound, there are often chances it can backfire, the recently released Fabio Guaglione and Fabio Resinaro’s Mine, came and went without much fanfare. However, call it sheer experience, the presence of director Liman behind the camera, gives us as an audience a sense of relief, mainly as he understands how to use the camera in creating tension and stress. With writer Dwain Worrell, director Liman‘s film arrives to see if there’s any juice left in war films without the scope and spectacle with which they’re typically associated. Honestly, it’s not quite the action flick it’s been billed as – which works both for and against it. The story follows U.S. Sergeant Allen Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), in late 2007, at the end of the Iraq war. Perched and camouflaged on the side a hill, for the past 20 hours, Isaac along with army sniper, Staff Sergeant Shane Matthews (John Cena), have been tasked with carrying out a reconnaissance on the site of an under-construction oil pipeline. All they have seen is the remains of a massacre – 8 bodies with no signs of life. Peering through his malfunctioning scope that once belonged to a now-dead friend, Isaac and his training thinks something doesn’t seem right. When Matthews deems the site safe, he heads down to check it out, of course, all heck breaks out and soon enough, as the two find themselves ambushed by Juba (Laith Nakli), the infamous, near-mythical American-trained Iraqi sniper who injures them both.
While Matthews is critically hit and left bleeding in the open field, Isaac is hit in the leg and forced to take cover behind a crumbling brick wall a few yards from the pipeline. What follows is a tension-fueled game of cat and mouse, as Juba (having hijacked Isaac’s radio frequency) begins taunting him and asking him questions about his life. All the while, Isaac tries to come up with solutions to tend to Matthews injuries, and find a way to take the sniper down before help arrives. As soon as the film you are dropped right into the events unapologetically. What comes next is a reckoning of pure adrenaline pumping cinema. Much like last year’s The Shallows, the film benefits from its bare bones approach, in the sense, there isn’t big explosions or typical warfare, this is more a war of wits which has been done before (and better) but this film is successful in the way that it doesn’t need huge action numbers to sustain suspense. The film practically rides on the banter between the two men, apart from the ‘previously-seen-in-other-war-films’ troubles faced by army men such as dehydration, blood loss, lack of food and wallowing in sand (the blunt physicality associated with all of it). While the ‘supposed enemy sniper’ constantly has the upper hand at concealing his camouflage and is a better marksman than either of the army-men, the dynamics of their conversation is what plays a key role in sustaining a viewer’s attention. This back-and-forth takes up the majority of the film’s lean run-time, resulting in a game of wits that’s largely exciting and enticing. Isaac teases out details from Juba over the radio, hoping to hear something in the background that gives away the sniper’s position. He carefully clears a hole in the wall so he can peek through it with his scope, as though he’s playing history’s highest-stakes game of Jenga. He gauges the velocity, speed, angle, and wind speed of Juba’s shots with expert precision given the circumstances. Credit goes to first-time scriptwriter Dwain Worrell; whose dialogue keeps the tension tighter than a wet drum. As we never see the sniper, and neither do Matthews or Isaacs, the film spirals into a psychological game of chess – or, more fittingly, the torture of Isaac. This isn’t the war we’ve come to expect in films. Isaac’s situation seems hopeless, and banter with the man responsible never strikes him as a worthwhile pursuit. Director Liman is no stranger to tense, effective thrillers – his last outing was the criminally undervalued Edge of Tomorrow – and on that level, this film surprisingly works. The drama is restricted to two men and one location, Liman establishing clear, comprehensible visual geography to set up the stakes. Even at a brisk 88 minutes, Liman along with Dwain Worrell, sets up plenty of opportunities for Isaac and the sniper to gain and lose ground, learn more about each other, and chase the upper hand. Despite his grave injuries, Isaac must assess his inventory, scout potential sniper locations, and try to draw Juba out. The film avoids the missteps of those recent war films by eliding politics and maudlin backstories for its characters, instead using cat-and-mouse thriller tactics to depict warfare on a purely visceral level. Given the current political climate, one may understandably suspect the titular wall to stand as a cheap metaphor for the cultural divide between the U.S. Sergeant and the infamous, near-mythical American-trained Iraqi sniper who ambushed and wounded him, but the unsteady wall of the film is nothing more than a shield which barely protects Isaac from enemy fire.
Director Liman’s efficient, muscular direction and the film’s impeccable sound design direct our focus toward the harshness of the setting and the crisis being faced by the slowly dying Isaac. Once the sergeants are cornered by Juba, much of the film’s remaining runtime consists only of Isaac trying to work his way out of an impossible situation while Juba psychologically toys with him over the radio, wearing him down mentally as he bleeds out from his festering wound. Since Isaac’s antenna was shot and Matthews lies injured and passed out since the ambush, Juba serves as Isaac’s only means of contact. Director Liman’s acute attention to details shows he can still exact as much control over a minimalist setting and narrative as he can with a more grandiose production like Edge of Tomorrow. Shot in anamorphic 16mm, the film is full of grainy textures that enhance the grit and grime on Isaac’s visage and the extremities of the barren environment in which he finds himself trapped. This heightens our experience of Isaac’s material reality and provides an immediacy to his increasingly perilous predicament. The climactic predicament could have been written and executed better although it is by and large, a competent finale signaling the ‘domino effect’. Director Doug Liman knows what it is and he knows the strengths are in the performances. It makes for a very interesting addition in the new age war film genre, sitting nicely between The Hurt Locker and American Sniper. Despite all that is well with the film, there are a few moments where you’re expecting the film to go one way and then it absolutely does not take any risks and gives you exactly what you expected. For that, I must say that it was disappointing to not see as much innovation with such a bare bones film. For me, I like when characters are forced to use their environments for their benefit and the film definitely does that but in sort of a half-assed way. There really isn’t anything clever or cool about the way it all pans out. With that being said, it still makes for an intense film even if sometimes it feels a little cheap. Another big issue here is that Juba seems the most interesting character, and not only are we never provided a way to connect with/hate him, we don’t even get enough backstory to bond with Isaac. Plenty of obstacles are thrown at Isaac: blowing sand, lack of drinking water, skittles for sustenance, blazing sun/heat, radio issues, and a brutally painful knee wound courtesy of Juba. The success of the film depends on two things: Aaron Taylor-Johnson selling us on Isaac’s predicament, and the radio dialogue between he and Juba, the former is fine, but the latter falls short. Despite John Cena and Aaron Taylor-Johnson sharing top billing, the film is Johnson’s show through and through. While he mumbles through a McConaughey-esque Southern drawl for the first few minutes, Taylor-Johnson’s breathless, wide-eyed performance develops once he’s limited to one working leg and a radio that only communicates with his prospective killer. Taylor-Johnson commits to this and does look like he’s being put through absolute hell. John Cena gets less to do, of course, but he acquits himself perfectly well. While, Laith Nakli delivers what amounts to a purely vocal performance. His Juba is erudite and crafty, quoting Edgar Allan Poe to Isaac while attempting to get under his skin and into his head. On the whole, ‘The Wall’ is an emotionally exhausting action drama that is surprisingly intriguing.
Directed – Doug Liman
Rated – R
Run Time – 88 minutes