Doug Liman’s The Wall faces the same problem as Netflix’s Sand Castle – is there anything left unsaid about an already mass-criticized Iraq invasion? We’ve heard it all. Government debriefings, conspiracy theories, oil-slick motivations. At this point – almost a decade after occupancy began to wind down – what more is there to exploit? Not much, which is why writer Dwain Worrell draws up this cat-and-mouse sniper battle like a modern-times Enemy At The Gates. One location, sun-soaked tension and a maniac shooter with his sights locked on American troopers. Imagine Jonás Cuarón’s Desierto, except instead of Jeffrey Dean Morgan hunting Mexican border crossers, a Middle Eastern man takes exception to the flag-waving “invaders” who just want to “help.”
Stop me if you’ve heard/seen/experienced these patriotic paradoxes before.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson stars as Sergeant Allen Isaac – “Eyes” for short – who’s 22 hours into a military stakeout with Staff Sergeant Shane Matthews (John Cena). It’s hot, they’re both hungry and there hasn’t been movement in almost a day. Isaac keeps his scope focused on a cobbled wall, that’s presumably protecting whoever killed a handful of contractors and security detail. Matthews has had enough though, and calls the area clear. He walks down to the pipeline scene where dead bodies lay, but before he can radio for extraction, a bullet strikes. Another pop quickly follows. Isaac attempts to save Matthews, only to find himself pinned behind the titular wall by a single Iraqi sniper – wounded, scared and running out of options.
It turns out that Matthews and Isaac wandered into the sights of “Juba” (voiced by Laith Nakli), a “ghost” with some 75 US killshots. His crosshairs offer laser precision, as he assures Isaac that each shot was expertly placed to keep him alive (once they begin communicating via radio). One bullet bursts his canteen, another snips his radio antenna and the last ruptures a thigh-high vein. Juba wants to keep Isaac breathing (psychological torment), like he’s playing god in some desert purgatory. Isaac ends up referring to Juba as a terrorist at one point, to which the assassin reminds his prey that Americans are the ones storming foreign borders – not the other way around. This is the kind of “who wronged who” commentary you can expect.
The Wall is at its best when Liman pits scope against scope. We flip from Juba’s sights to Isaac’s binocular view, scanning horizons for a slip in camouflage. When shots are fired, there’s a momentary gasp until hurdling steel punctures its target. As Isaac ducks for cover while bleeding out, we cringe and recoil. Matthews goes down in the open and spends half the film taking a dirt nap, but being restricted to one character never truly hinders production aesthetics (Juba is never shown outside his hidden perch). Long distance targeting manages to spike tension at the right moments, even if a few misses raise suspicion. Liman works peril against isolation, as plasma drips from gushing wounds that set a human expiration date.
It’s not easy being Mr. Taylor-Johnson, but he navigates one soldier’s wrestle with fate as a wardog of his experience would. Isaac ranges survival skills and the acceptance of death, as we learn about how war entangles repeat tourmen. The year is 2007 and fighting nears an end – so why is Isaac still there? Both Cena and Taylor-Johnson banter with a soldier’s grit, but only one deploys his emotions when face-to-face with an enemy executioner.
During his tourniquet application, Taylor-Johnson screams and winces with on-the-ground surgical horror. When calculating sniper trajectory and range, he thinks like an Army man. When conversing with the Devil, Taylor-Johnson addresses fate with despair, humility and exhaustion. We know he can act, and Liman’s guidance impedes his lead actor’s talent to no degree.
None of this is to say The Wall offers new insight into a long-questioned Middle East conflict, but it’s certainly a familiar-yet-engaging battlefield story. The ending may jump the tonal shark a bit, but Doug Liman otherwise whips a dusty tornado of whiz-bangs and grunt heroics in this single-location sandbox. Hiding places are scarce, mouths are dry and muzzle flashes represent the only radar advantage – not exactly Black Hawk Down, but more an open-world Buried. Is there really “bad” or “good” in such a morally ambivalent fight? This isn’t the movie to answer such a question, even if it wants to offer cultural commentary amidst a serviceable trading of military tactics.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson deserves more credit as an actor, because he's the only reason this Iraq War thriller hobbles steadily on two legs.