×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘The Wall’

Director Doug Liman follows up 'Edge of Tomorrow' with a lean, suspenseful Iraqi sniper drama that could also be called 'Live. Die. Repeat.'

With:
Aaron Taylor-Johnson, John Cena, Laith Nakli.

In the vast majority of war movies, the act of combat is a show of force in which the stronger side wins, barreling through the enemy’s defenses like a bowling ball. But in “The Wall,” war is like a protracted game of chess, where each side is down to its final pieces on the board, and strategy matters.

A lean, back-to-basics thriller from director Doug Liman (who made the original “The Bourne Identity”) and first-time screenwriter Dwain Worrell (whose tricky script landed on the Black List), this wide-release Amazon Original film pits a pair of American snipers against an unknown foe, who just might be the notorious Iraqi sniper known as Juba, aka “the angel of death” — an adversary with 75 U.S. casualties notched on his belt, and countless others unconfirmed.

As this high-tension standoff escalates, we never learn who the mystery shooter is, though this much is certain: The two American soldiers would do well not to underestimate their opponent. As written, he’s a lot smarter than they are, and a much better shot. While that imbalance may rankle those who consider war movies like sporting events, expecting to see some aspect of their side confirmed as superior, it makes for much better drama — for instance, “The Day of the Jackal,” or the sharpshooter villain played by Vincent Cassel in the recent Liman-produced “Jason Bourne.” Besides, how often do we get to see the American Army portrayed as the underdog?

When Army Ranger staff sergeant Shane Matthews (WWE star John Cena) and his spotter, Allan “Ize” Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), arrive on the scene of a distress call, everybody on site is dead. Observing from a safe distance, they count eight corpses and see no sign of life. It’s 2007, and the Iraq war is officially over, but as they’ll soon find, not everyone has laid down his gun.

Studying the scene through a malfunctioning spotting scope, Ize suspects they may be witnessing the handiwork of an Iraqi sniper, but his commanding officer isn’t so sure. The place looks deserted to him — just an oil pipeline through empty desert, surrounded by construction equipment. The only thing they can’t see around is a rickety stone wall, all that remains of some native Iraqi structure.

Impatient and over-confident, Matthews walks down to the site while Ize covers him from his camouflaged spot on a nearby hill. And then, in one of those moments whose seeming inevitability merely compounds the terror, a shot is fired and Matthews hits the dirt, badly wounded. Putting his own life at risk to save his comrade, Ize rushes to the scene, taking a bullet in the leg in the process.

While Matthew bleeds out in the sand, Ize barely manages to pull himself to (temporary) safety behind the stone wall, where nearly the entire movie takes place, with Ize pinned down hoping for backup he has no way of reaching. When he tries to contact base, he discovers his radio is broken — a convenient plot contrivance but one that forces him to switch to a local frequency, where his would-be assassin is waiting to taunt him.

With its single-location, practically real-time idea of a one-on-one confrontation between two snipers, “The Wall” belongs to a select pool of tête-à-tête thrillers — “Phone Booth,” “Buried,” “Sleuth” — in which our hero discovers he’s the mouse being hunted by a sly cat and must use his wits if he hopes to survive. (Worth noting: The villain has no face, and the hero’s name is pronounced “Eyes.”) To Liman’s credit, the director wasn’t interested in a strictly high-concept exercise, and Cena’s character effectively raises the stakes by giving Ize a chance at redemption. Yet the conceit is double-edged, since the source of Ize’s anguish merely confuses matters when it’s finally revealed.

While the Iraqi sniper pries for personal details on the radio, Ize tries to keep him talking, listening for clues that might betray his location (the sound of flapping sheet metal, for instance) and hoping he’ll slip up in some way that will turn the situation in his favor. This part is the most enjoyable, but also the most far-fetched, and though Liman did his best to capture the gritty you-are-there quality of Iraq (by shooting on anamorphic 16mm near Edwards Air Force Base in Lancaster, Calif.), he might as well have staged the entire thing on a stripped-down theater stage.

“The Wall” succeeds because of Worrell’s words, which cleverly circumvent obvious plot holes — like Ize’s broken radio, or the way it suddenly works when the story requires — while using an implausible English-language conversation between opposing snipers to keep the tension high and conjure a mental picture of this unseen adversary.

In the end, it’s up to Taylor-Johnson (and to a lesser degree, voice actor Laith Nakli as the Iraqi sniper) to sell those words, and the young actor gives a terrific performance under extreme conditions, totally convincing as a man alternating between panic and trust in the practical discipline of his training. If he’s going to survive, it’s that training, not luck, and certainly not the flimsy cover provided by the wall, that will protect him.

Film Review: 'The Wall'

Reviewed at 500 Park Ave. screening room, New York, April 25, 2017. Running time: 90 MIN.

Production: An Amazon Studios, Roadside Attractions release, of an Amazon Studios, of a Hypnotic production. Producer: Doug Liman. Executive producer: Ray Angelic.

Crew: Director: Doug Liman. Screenplay: Dwain Worrell. Camera (color, widescreen): Roman Vasyanov. Editor: Julia Bloch.

With: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, John Cena, Laith Nakli.

More Film

  • Liam Gallagher and Son shopping at

    Cannes: Screen Media Buys 'Liam Gallagher: As It Was' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Screen Media has acquired North American rights to Charlie Lightening and Gavin Fitzgerald’s feature documentary “Liam Gallagher: As It Was.” The film follows the former Oasis frontman as he finds himself on the periphery of the rock ‘n’ roll world after years spent at the white hot center of the music world. Screen Media will [...]

  • La Casa de Papel Netflix

    Madrid Region Booms as an International Production Hub

    Madrid is booming as never before in its 125-year film history; arguably, no other European site is currently transforming so quickly into a global production hub. A 20-minute drive north of the Spanish capital, a large white-concrete hanger has been built beside the Madrid-Burgos motorway, at the entrance to Tres Cantos, a well-heeled satellite village and industrial [...]

  • Emirati Comedy

    Cannes: Stuart Ford's AGC Takes World Sales on Emirati Comedy 'Rashid and Rajab'

    Stuart Ford’s AGC International sales arm has taken global distribution rights outside the Middle East to Dubai-set concept comedy “Rashid and Rajab” which will be hitting movie theaters in the region starting in June. The deal between the film’s production company Image Nation Abu Dhabi and AGC, which have a close rapport, was signed in [...]

  • Pokémon Detective Pikachu

    China Box Office: Weekend Chart Dominated By Non-Chinese Films

    Unusually, all of the top five films at the China box office this weekend were non-Chinese. That’s a relatively rare occurrence, as audiences typically favor local films over foreign content. But it is one that may happen more often, as high-performing local titles become fewer and farther between due to production slowdowns. The lack of [...]

  • White Lie

    Playtime Boards Canadian Psychological Thriller 'White Lie' Starring Kacey Rohl (EXCLUSIVE)

    One of France’s leading sales companies, Playtime has boarded “White Lie,” a character-driven psychological thriller film from the promising new Toronto-based directors Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas. Now in post-production, “White Lie” is headlined by Kacey Rohl, who has been seen in hit TV series such as “The Killing,” “Arrow,” “Hannibal” and “Wayward Pines.” Rohl [...]

  • Cannes’ Focus CoPro’ Gives Push for

    Cannes’ Focus CoPro’ Gives Push for First-Time Features

    CANNES–Seven first-feature projects will be pitched to an audience of industry professionals at Focus CoPro’, an event hosted by Cannes’ Short Film Corner that will take place Tuesday May 21 at the Palais des Festivals. The pitching session, which is run in collaboration with Nisi Masa and the Pop Up Film Residency, was introduced last year [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content