Remember the farmhouse sequence in The Bourne Identity where Clive Owen’s assassin comes to take out his former colleague played by Matt Damon? It was pretty good, wasn’t it?
Well, that film’s director, Doug Liman, has all but made a feature-length expansion of that stretch, set it in 2007 Iraq and called it The Wall – and it’s not half bad, either.
After a dozen years of mediocre (The Edge of Tomorrow) to borderline bad (Jumper) movies, this outdoor chamber piece with essentially a cast of three is a smart reset for Liman.
The single location and limited number of players inspires the director to showcase some of the best aspects of his filmography from the past two decades as he lenses U.S. Army sniper Matthews (John Cena) and his spotter Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) with an array of camera angles and degrees of proximity as they evaluate a desert site strewn with corpses.
Tasked with surveying the area and retrieving any surviving communications tech, the two see no sign of danger, so Matthews, unwilling to sit still any longer, goes down to check out the scene despite Isaac’s concerns that the deaths may be the work of a pro.
Since something needs to happen to make The Wall a captivating film and not just two hunky U.S. soldiers putzing around, the question isn’t whether Matthews is going to take a bullet, but when. Heavy suspense builds in Liman’s masterful lead-up to the inevitable, after which Isaac charges in serpentine-style to save his commanding officer, likewise gets hit and retreats behind the titular rock barrier where he struggles to formulate a rescue plan.
It’s a pressure cooker situation of the first degree, but with the soldiers separated, the movie becomes a one-man show for Taylor-Johnson, an appealing actor who’s nonetheless never been presented with a challenge like this – and his inexperience with solo entertainment shows.
Thankfully, he’s soon joined by a voice in his earpiece claiming to be a fellow soldier, an assertion that’s quickly disproven as Isaac finds himself in cat-and-mouse dialogue with the very person who injured him and Matthews.
The machinations come courtesy of Laith Nakli, whose credits include Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor and a recurring role on 24: Legacy – neither of which was prominent enough to get him listed in the top third of the cast, though his manipulative musings here should change that status going forward.
Strong as the enemy’s hold is over his victim, the small cast and the situation at hand lend themselves to awkward exposition, and though Liman does what he can to counteract this somewhat necessary evil, he consistently erases his gains. The most damning example comes when his camera wordlessly depicts the parallels between Isaac’s wounds and those of another dead U.S. soldier in his midst, a clear visual message that’s undercut minutes later when Isaac states its implications.
Inherently tense, The Wall also doesn’t need Isaac’s shoehorned redemption angle, though seeing as it clocks in at under 90 minutes, one can understand the need for Dwain Worrell’s script to loop in whatever it can to qualify as a feature-length film and get made by someone of Liman’s status.
Considering the strength of the final few minutes, whatever means were required to hook the filmmaker seem worthwhile in retrospect.
Grade: B-minus. Rated R. Now playing at Biltmore Grande
(Photo: Roadside Attractions)