Some individual action sequences within this film are effective, but they don’t add up to anything, making The Wall a very long 82 minutes indeed.
Publicity materials describe Doug Liman’s The Wall as a “deadly psychological thriller” but only one of those words really applies: There’s plenty of death, but precious little psychology and even fewer thrills to be had in this film. Instead, it’s more of a grim slog that highlights the unglamorous aspects of guerrilla combat as experienced by two American soldiers (Isaac, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Matthews, played by professional wrestler John Cena) in Iraq. Their mission, which takes place somewhere in the Iraqi desert, is to kill a sniper who has been targeting pipeline workers.
Isaac and Matthews have been hunkered down in the hills for the better part of 24 hours when Matthews loses patience and decides to retrieve a radio from one of the slain men. The body lies in an open area, so Matthews must leave his position of safety and expose himself to the sniper, with predictable results. Isaac then puts himself in harm’s way while trying to help his buddy, with equally predictable results, but at least he manages to get to a position of temporary safety behind a stone wall, without which this would be a very short film indeed.
Isaac is badly wounded and out of water, both of which are played up at times and ignored at others, as required by the plot. He radios for help, but is tricked by the sniper, who poses as an American. It doesn’t take long for Isaac to identify the deception, which sets up the most interesting part of the film, as he and the sniper (Juba, played by Laith Nakli) exchange taunts and arguments and bits of personal information while at the same time trying to kill each other.
The screenplay for The Wall was named to the 2014 Black List, meaning it was one of the unproduced screenplays “most liked” by Hollywood studio and production company executives. I suspect it reads a lot better than it plays on screen, where it plays out like the solution of a self-imposed intellectual puzzle—how to make a combat film using only one location and for much of the film, only one visible actor—and it might have found a more natural home on stage or as a short film. But the big bucks are in feature films, so it’s not surprising that screenwriter Dwain Worrell (who previously wrote the screenplay for the 2010 zombie picture Walking the Dead and is a staff writer for the television series Iron Fist) went for the brass ring. To make The Wall as a feature film, what could have been 20 or 30 minutes of interesting entertainment is puffed up to several times that length. It doesn’t help that the extra time is spent not deepening the characters or broadening the context, but ticking off as many war movie clichés as possible.
It would be nice to think that The Wall is intended as a criticism of American military operations (for instance, the Iraqi sniper is clearly the smartest guy in the film, and gets in a few digs about American imperialism) but the whole mechanism of the plot requires that you identify with and care about the American soldiers. Unfortunately, The Wall does virtually nothing to deserve that emotional investment—we never learn much of anything about either Isaac or Matthews, and what we do see of them seems to have been assembled from the big book of movie soldier clichés—so unless the fact that an actor is wearing an American military uniform is enough to win your heart, you probably won’t care any more than I did about these two soldiers. That’s a problem in a film whose action is shaped almost entirely around the question of whether they will survive or not.
The Wall employs many of point of view shots, often through a rifle sight, and Roman Vasyanov’s cinematography puts you right in the heart of the action (why you would want to be there is a question to which I have no answer, unless you are really into first-person shooter games). He expertly conveys the literally gritty nature of the environment (the Mojave Desert serves as a convincing replacement for Iraq), and does not flinch at portraying the gruesome nature of the injuries suffered by the characters. Some individual action sequences within this film are also effective, but they don’t add up to anything, making The Wall a very long 82 minutes indeed. | Sarah Boslaugh