There’s something surprising about “The Wall,” a stripped-down war drama featuring for much of its brisk running time exactly two on-screen characters, one of whom is lying unconscious face down in the dirt for the bulk of the movie. It was directed by Doug Liman, a filmmaker known for such kinetic action movies as “Live Die Repeat (Edge of Tomorrow),” “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” “The Bourne Identity” and “Go.”
Another surprising thing? It’s pretty darn good.
Not that it shouldn’t be. But “The Wall,” which features Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a U.S. Army soldier pinned down by a preternaturally accurate Iraqi sniper behind a crumbling wall and pro-wrestler-turned-actor John Cena as his injured superior officer, doesn’t sound like there’s much room for innovation, let alone a movie. And yet the debut screenplay of Dwain Worrell — which won a competition sponsored by Amazon before going on to make the 2014 Black List of the year’s most-liked scripts — is smart, tense, provocative and weird.
Set in 2007 Iraq, “The Wall” opens on Taylor-Johnson’s Sgt. Allen Isaac and Cena’s Staff Sgt. Shane Matthews as the two are following up after an attack at an oil-pipeline construction site that has left four workers and two security contractors dead.
After this short prologue, in which nothing much happens — except the establishment of a viscerally real-feeling bond between these two profane, macho, half-cautious, half-cavalier warriors — the situation dramatically changes for the worse. Matthews, who has gone to get a closer look, is shot and grievously wounded. When Isaac rushes to his aid, he is wounded in the leg before hobbling to safety behind a stone barricade.
When Isaac attempts to radio for help, he finds himself talking not to his base but to the unseen sniper (voice of Laith Nakli), nicknamed “Juba” after the legendarily lethal gunman reputed to have killed as many as several hundred U.S. troops. And that is pretty much where things stand until the climax, which somehow manages to be both bleak and satisfying.
“Rewarding” might be a better word. The movie, which defies conventional thinking about war-movie endings, largely consists of conversation, not conflict (at least not in a military sense). Juba alternately taunts, attempts to school and acts as a confessor to Isaac, who, as one would expect of these things, tries to use his head to outwit his enemy and survive.
The movie is also fairly cerebral, raising questions about the purpose of this conflict in particular, but also about war in general. Worrell’s screenplay, through the voice of Juba, interrogates the mechanisms through which terrorists are made and multiply, despite the best efforts of military strategists and attempts at nation building.
“The Wall” is a fairly hopeless film. In a sense, the fragile structure of the title acts as a double metaphor: for a barrier between enemies that keeps them from killing one another, as well as one that must come down if true understanding is ever to occur.
Rated R for language throughout and some war violence.