The Wall is an intimate, suspenseful war drama with a rather vicious streak. The thrills work, and director Doug Liman relies on the sort of action film tropes of swish pans, varied framing, stealthy edits and one impressive tracking shot to enhance Dwain Worrell’s spartan (and Black Listed) script, which is mostly dialogue between a U.S. soldier and an unseen Iraqi enemy over a radio. Liman, whose last feature was the frenetic, time-tripping alien invasion flick Edge of Tomorrow, forgoes any kind of musical score to enhance the drama or manipulate the audience’s tension. Instead, it’s the sound of wind, the whizz of bullets with an occasional unexpected bang when bullets make contact, that make the film’s soundtrack effective. This is far from the kind of movie one would have expected from the action director, who broke into the Hollywood scene via the indie comedy Swingers (1996).
A purist exploration of the action genre, Liman does not hold back on the violence and viscera. Gaping wounds are lingered upon by the camera. For added bonus — but pushing the limits of the point — a finger is hyper mangled just by accident. Things are really tough for Allen “Eyes” Isaac, played quite capably by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, as he is pinned behind a crumbling, flimsy wall in the desert by an unseen sniper (voiced by Laith Nakli). John Cena is the other soldier, Staff Sergeant Shane Matthews. Against Taylor-Johnson, it’s easily apparent who is the true thespian. Cena just can’t seem to pick the right moment to blink, calling attention to his amateur skills as an actor. As a wrestler, he’s much better at the physical stuff like shaking his ass in a moment of homo-erotic levity (two dudes alone in the desert, after all).
It doesn’t take long till the male bonding — with references to tampons and calling each other “bitch” — turns to the tense drama at the wall. Sometimes it feels dragged out, as nothing truly revealing in character development can emerge with genuine quality in the blur of hours between Isaac and the sniper. Isaac embodies a sort of human desperation at the mercy of an omniscient, disembodied force, brought to earth with conversations about family, home and even some classic literature that spark a kind of reckoning within Isaac. It’s a bit too expository for its own good, which again deflates any sense of genuine character development. Worse, though, it sometimes slackens the primal tension that is the essence of this movie.
It’ll be interesting to see how this fairs as a wide release summer movie. This hardly feels like a hit nor does it fully deliver on its promise of thrills that never seem to rise above unexpected bursts of sound. It also builds toward a rather dark finale that offers little redemptive closure before a soundtrack of pounding heavy metal power chords pour out of the soundtrack to add a final cheap jolt to the grim quality of a movie about slow suffering and so-so set piece twists. It’s not totally effective, and one has to wonder if this is some kind of exercise for Liman as much as a fully formed movie.
The Wall runs 81 minutes and is rated R. It opens wide in our South Florida area on Friday, May 12. For screenings in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. Amazon Studios invited us to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.