6 out of 10
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Isaac
John Cena as Matthews
Laith Nakli as Juba
Directed by Doug Liman
The Wall Review:
It’s potent and useful to highlight the actions of the military, the risks they take, and the professionalism they espouse. So potent that the reality of military life — in action and out — is less focused on how long and hot and uncomfortable and boring even the tensest situation can become. Even sitting in a sniper position watching a wall, waiting for someone on the other side to make a move. That’s the reality sniper team Isaac (Taylor-Johnson) and Matthews (Cena) have been living one day in 2007 and they’re done with it. Or they were before a sadistic, unseen man (Nakli) begins playing with them for sport.
The idea of the war film is typically so large, it’s easy for the essentials to get lost inside complicated beach landings or tank charges. Doug Liman’s (Edge of Tomorrow) two-man drama whittles the Iraq war down to its essence (or at least its essence as he sees it) – one group fending off invasion of its homeland and senseless collateral damage from another group which doesn’t really understand why it is there. That is at least what it wants to be about, but between a lot of rolling, grunting, and increasingly-desperate attempts to keep tension up for 90 minutes, a lot of that desire evaporates in the desert sun.
When it’s just dealing with the boredom and uncertainty of military duty, The Wall is extremely effective. Scoping out an ambush of oil pipeline workers, Isaac and Matthews bicker about the reality of the danger they’re in, what they should do, how they should do it. It’s funny and engaging and unfortunately very short. They quickly come under fire from an unseen sniper and soon Isaac is stuck behind a bombed-out school wall, trying to figure out where the sniper is and rescue his unconscious colleague. Unfortunately, and I never in my life expected to be write these words, without Cena all enjoyment is leached out of The Wall.
It’s not that he has a lot to do, or Taylor-Johnson, despite being the person arguably carrying the film. The Wall wants to work as a psychological battle of wills, but for that it would need to become a character study, focused only on what Isaac and the sniper Juba are saying to one another. But it hasn’t been made that way. A lot of good films have been made about two characters locked in a room talking to each other (essentially what The Wall is), but the word exciting has rarely been appended to any of them. And exciting is what it wants to be. Liman wants audiences on the edge of their seat, trying to guess what will happen next as Isaac tries to trick Juba or find water or fix his radio.
That kind of filmmaking is the filmmaking of doing, and Taylor-Johnson is constantly doing. His performance follows in the physical vein of work like DiCaprio in The Revenant, defined by the actor actually doing what his character is doing. He drags himself across the desert, he sets a tourniquet, he carves a hole in a wall. Occasionally he talks to Juba. The Wall spends so much time and energy on the ‘doing’ that it doesn’t give near enough attention to its characters to make the battle of wills at the heart of the story meaningful. We learn Isaac is still dealing with the death of a close friend in combat which he feels responsible for, but not much else. We learn even less about Juba, who isn’t a character at all, he’s a plot device to force Isaac to do things. It’s a one-sided battle of wills, Isaac against a supervillain who can do whatever the plot demands but nothing else.
The Wall is riven by this split focus and never recovers. It has moments of intensity, which achieve what Liman seems to want, but it never does enough to make something out of its set up. The requirements to do that are too at odds with what the excitement Liman wants to generate and The Wall never recovers from the conflict. File it away under missed opportunity.