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The Wall focuses on intense cat and mouse game

The Wall. Directed by Doug Liman. Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson and John Cena. Rating: 7 (out of 10) Doug Liman shrinks the theatre and spectacle of war down to a trio of players and one shooting locale in The Wall, opening today.
The Wall
Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays U.S. Army sniper Sergeant Isaac in Doug Limon’s The Wall. The film opens today at Cineplex Odeon International Village Cinemas.

The Wall. Directed by Doug Liman. Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson and John Cena. Rating: 7 (out of 10)

Doug Liman shrinks the theatre and spectacle of war down to a trio of players and one shooting locale in The Wall, opening today.

Overlooking the fact that “The Wall” is a risky title choice (considering the phrase was repeated ad nauseum during presidential debates last year) and the fact that at least one or two patrons will stumble into the film expecting to hear Pink Floyd, Liman’s film is a fairly compelling desert-storm thriller about two American soldiers pinned down and tormented by an unseen Iraqi sniper.

Sgt. Aaron “Ize” Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Staff Sgt. Shane Matthews (John Cena) have been scoping out a desert crime scene for hours: half a dozen bodies, no sign of life. Despite misgivings from Ize, Matthews decides to investigate, leaving himself very much exposed in hostile terrain. Soon both men are downed from gunshots with only a meagre crumbling wall between them and the most likely direction of the shooter.

In a convenient plot contrivance their radio is blown out, so Ize is forced to radio for help on a local channel. Surprise! It’s their adversary on the line (voiced by Laith Nakli), a man they guess to be infamous Iraqi sniper Juba, who has used his U.S. training to turn the scope around and kill some 75 Americans. “I want to get to know you,” the man coos to a wounded Ize.

A deadly cat-and-mouse game ensues, with Matthews wounded in open ground and Ize barely sheltered by an ever-diminishing stone wall. As the sniper coaxes information from Ize and plagues him with a play-by-play of his slow death.

It’s an unconventional war story, to say the least: the U.S. soldiers are the underdogs, outmatched and sitting ducks for an unseen opponent who mocks their way of life, about which we know little. There is no girl back home clutching the phone as the shots are fired (American Sniper), no bromances established to raise the emotional stakes when things go very, very bad (Lone Survivor).

As we have become increasingly conflicted about the war “effort” and queasy about boilerplate patriotism, so too have movies evolved to highlight that moral uncertainty. “From where I’m sitting, you look like the terrorist,” says our foreign sniper. The motivation may be foggy but our soldiers’ bravery is beyond reproach.

The director knows how to choreograph action and high tension: he’s had practice with The Bourne Ultimatum, Edge of Tomorrow and Mr. and Mrs. Smith. John Cena, who’s spent the last few years as an unexpected secret weapon in comedies like Trainwreck and Sisters, gets down and dirty again but it’s Taylor-Johnson (Nocturnal Animals, Kick-Ass) who’s front and centre for the duration. With only one location and limited movement (think Colin Farrell in Phone Booth, Ryan Reynolds in Buried) it’s up to Taylor-Johnson to keep us watching for 90 minutes as his character alternates between annoyance, grief and pure peril. Liman’s decision to shoot in anamorphic 16mm helps, as we get cosy with Ize behind that wall and see all the grit, grain, blood, and sweat up close. So if lying in the dirt for an hour and a half is what you’re in the mood for, head for The Wall. 

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