In the age of the War on Terror and Call of Duty, modern war films find themselves in a precarious position. To what extent do they address the moral and ethical quandaries of the Iraq War (which, fourteen years later, generally looks like a bad idea), while also taking steps to honor and understand the troops that fought there? Doug Liman’s taut sniper thriller The Wall falls somewhere between The Hurt Locker and Lone Survivor on that scale, offering surface-level critiques of the fog of war while serving as a tense thriller on its own.
The film’s stripped-down setting follows two Army snipers, Matthews (John Cena) and Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who are tasked with scouting a pipeline where contractors and private security have been mysteriously picked off by an expert sniper dubbed “Juba” (Laith Nakli). Naturally, within minutes, they find themselves the sniper’s next targets: Matthews is critically hit and left bleeding in the open field, while 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, like a jihadist take on Kiefer Sutherland from Phone Booth. Isaac, meanwhile, must tend to his injuries, look after Matthews, and find a way to take the sniper down before help arrives.
Liman is no stranger to tense, effective thrillers – his last outing was the criminally undervalued Edge of Tomorrow – and on that level, The Wall 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 81 minutes, Liman (along with screenwriter 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.
This back-and-forth takes up the majority of The Wall’s lean runtime, 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, making The Wall a surefire future hit with milporn enthusiasts.
Despite Cena and Taylor-Johnson sharing top billing, The Wall 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. It’s a live-wire turn not far removed from his Golden Globe-winning role in Nocturnal Animals, and he compellingly plays with Isaac’s desperation and guilt, the reasons for which Worrell parses out as the film’s themes (and pace) require. Much like James Franco in 127 Hours, Isaac’s trial by fire becomes symbolic of a more personal reflection on his own personality and motivations, and to a large extent it works. Cena gets less to do, of course, but he acquits himself perfectly well.
The same compliments cannot be paid to the film’s villain, unfortunately. Juba is an arch, melodramatic baddie, with a modus operandi so far-fetched that it strains the film’s credulity. While his monologues tease some salient points about Iraqi resentment of U.S. occupation forces and oil contractors hijacking the resources of the Middle East, Juba mostly just forces the audience to choke down chestnuts like “We are not so different, you and I” and his recitation of “The Raven” to an exhausted Isaac. Juba also does nothing to complicate or dispel the too-common notion of Iraqis as heartless traitors who want nothing more than for all Americans to die in the “shadow of Islam.” As salient critiques of the second Iraq War’s politics go, The Hurt Locker it ain’t.
Despite being peppered with these unfortunate bits of melodrama (three guesses as to the significance of Isaac’s nickname being “Eyes”), The Wall broadly works as a modest-stakes thriller set in one of the world’s more morally complicated theaters of conflict. The mechanics of its single-location conceit are expertly handled, and Taylor-Johnson carries the film through the hokiest parts of its material with an admirable intensity befitting his rising star status. And even allowing for the film’s ending, which muddles the thematic waters even further, The Wall is worth a watch.