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The Wall is the anti-American Sniper — and will generate anti-American Sniper-level enthusiasm and box office. Except for the graphic realism of the artillery exchanges and gory injuries, this account of two American soldiers pinned down in a desert wasteland by an Iraqi sharpshooter has less the dimensions of a theatrical film than of a microscopic drama you might see in a 99-seat theater very off-Broadway. The excursion into quick, small-scale filmmaking by director Doug Liman possesses an intensely realized physicality, but tedium outweighs suspense by a very large margin in this Amazon Studios venture that won’t be seen by many in its theatrical run.
Debuting screenwriter Dwain Worrell serves up a situation rather than a plot — two heavily armed foreign soldiers are at the mercy of a committed local marksman on a patch of godforsaken land; it’s the sort of thing that always appeals to actors because the characters are placed in extremis, which almost always calls for all-stops-out histrionics. The Wall begins at a level of maximum peril and distress and determinedly sustains it for precisely 90 minutes. While one can admire the commitment, technique, concentration and stamina required to keep the pressure cooker at maximum temperature, it still feels like an exercise, one so dramatically monotonous and tonally high-pitched that you want to escape almost as much as the characters do.
The central dilemma is one that has been played out innumerable times in war zones through the millennia, of foreign soldiers finding themselves caught on enemy territory with little hope of survival. In this instance, the poor souls are Sgt. Allen Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a U.S. Army Ranger who serves as a spotter for the hunkier and more cocksure Staff Sgt. Shane Matthews (John Cena). It’s 2007, Bush has decided that we’ve won and it’s time to wind down operations.
But that doesn’t help Isaac or Matthews in the slightest when, after surveying a landscape littered with dead bodies for nearly 24 hours and detecting no sign of life, Matthews, despite misgivings from Isaac, decides it’s safe to venture out of their camouflaged position.
Big mistake. Matthews takes a massive hit to the body, laying him flat. Caught out in the open, Isaac eventually takes a bullet in the upper leg and finds refuge in the only protected place around, a low stone wall that’s all that remains of some recently destroyed structure. This is where he basically remains for the rest of the drama. Excruciatingly extracting the lead from his leg with his knife and uncertain whether his buddy is alive or dead, Isaac calls in on his mobile phone for help. But in a prolonged conversation that represents the core of the film, Isaac ends up talking to the Iraqi man who’s trying to kill him but who, before doing so, says that, “I want to get to know you.”
In mental and physical agony, Isaac remains in a feverish state throughout, hiding behind the wall while also trying to peer through cracks to figure out where his opponent is hiding. The most likely spot is a huge pile of junk across a sandy flat, but how is Isaac going to spot him or draw him out? It strikes the American that his adversary, who speaks barely accented English, may be the infamous Islamic Army sniper called Juba. But whatever the case, all the shooter has to do is wait for Isaac to reveal himself, which he’s going to have to do sooner or later.
Oddly poised philosophically somewhere between Sam Peckinpah and Samuel Beckett, the drama pivots on a tense central dilemma and seems to have the military lingo down well, but Worrell never goes deeper than what’s required by the immediate needs of the moment. Although Taylor-Johnson is onscreen constantly for the full 90 minutes, his character isn’t detailed; he’s an Everyman, reacting as almost anyone would in the same situation given his skill set and equipment. There’s vast absurdist potential in the premise, but the filmmakers aren’t lured there, either.
Instead, Liman attacks the story in full-bore action mode. The visceral physicality of the moment, created variously by the wind, sand, wounds, heat, thirst, hunger and occasional spasms of violence, capture the major part of the director’s attention, along with the obvious imminent threat of death; The Wall may have cost a tiny fraction of his bigger films — Mr. and Mrs. Smith, The Bourne Identity, Edge of Tomorrow — but his preoccupation with physical intensity remains similar.
With Cena basically out of the picture after 10 or 15 minutes, it entirely falls to Taylor-Johnson to carry the day. One can’t fault him for his unharnessed expression of sheer desperation, but it’s all pitched to the same level — intense, intense, intense. The approach, here, at least, produces quickly diminishing returns.
Filmed in the desert near Lancaster, Calif., the basically one-location film doesn’t lack for combat verisimilitude, as far as it goes. Shooting in anamorphic Super 16, cinematographer Roman Vasyanov very effectively puts you in the middle of the action as much as you’d ever want to be.
Production company: Hypnotic
Distributors: Amazon Studios, Roadside Attractions
Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, John Cena, Laith Nakli
Director-producer: Doug Liman
Screenwriter: Dwain Worrell
Executive producers: Ray Angelic, Alison Winter
Director of photography: Roman Vasyanov
Production designer: Jeff Mann
Costume designer: Cindy Evans
Editor: Julia Bloch
Casting: Mindy Marin
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