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A few weeks ago, the war thriller Mine came and left area theaters without much fanfare. The film followed a Marine sniper who was forced to hold his position after his partner died and he stepped on a land mine. It is a terrible film, one that tacks a maudlin backstory onto the cinematic tedium of watching a man stand in place for several days straight. The Wall has a strikingly similar premise: It is also about a sniper—this one is in the Army—who spends most of the film stuck in one place. Whereas Mine halfheartedly tugs the heartstrings, The Wall unfolds like a grim joke. Director Doug Liman never glorifies his hero and instead opts to let the action speak for itself.
Liman and screenwriter Dwain Worrell set the film toward the end of the Iraq War. Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Matthews (John Cena) are a scout-sniper team, and they’ve been at an area around a pipeline. They determine that it’s sufficiently safe to leave their camouflage, so Matthews walks toward the pipeline for a closer look. Disaster strikes when an unseen sniper wounds him, and Isaac runs to his aid. The sniper shoots Isaac too, so he has no choice but to abandon Matthews and seek cover behind a stone wall. The vast majority of the film takes place like this, with Isaac trying to get the drop on his enemy.
The Wall is admirable in how it eschews the heroism of a modern war thriller. There is an air of realism to their behavior: While Cena spends most of the film bleeding out, lying still in the desert, Isaac relies on his training and intuition. A lot of Taylor-Johnson’s performance is non-verbal. There is an intense, disturbing scene wherein he removes the bullet from the gaping wound in his leg. He screams, grunts, and pants—all while his face is caked in blood and grit—and the sniper needles him. It is harrowing because it is hopeless and Isaac knows it, yet Liman never deigns to cut away from the implacable constant of the oppressive desert and highly accurate gunfire.
The film would not work, however, unless Worrell added one vaguely implausible development. Shortly after Isaac gets behind the wall, he hears a voice on his radio. He slowly intuits that the voice belongs to the sniper, who seems sincere in his desire to chat with Isaac. Laith Nakli plays the sniper as intelligent and driven, and the character’s depth is all the more surprising since we never see his face.
The sniper asks about Isaac’s family, his friends, and why he came to Iraq in the first place. Out of boredom and anger, Isaac alternates between cursing him and playing along with his mind games. Both men underestimate each other, and Liman carefully draws the battle lines so The Wall unfolds like a deadly chess match. There are only so many outcomes, and each eliminated possibility only heightens each agonizing step Isaac must take.
The promotional material for The Wall is misleading. An American flag features prominently on the poster, and the trailer includes Cena shouting some gung-ho dialogue about how every soldier is a killing machine. In the actual film, Cena is too delirious to shout, let alone inspire Isaac, and patriotism is the furthest thing from any character’s mind. Instead, The Wall is a deliciously nasty film. The sniper toys with Isaac, and the audience by extension, with the simple goal of breaking his spirit. If its final minutes are mean-spirited, at least Liman and Worrell do their due diligence to earn it.
The Wall opens Friday at Regal Ballston Common Stadium 12 and AMC Hoffman Center 22.