The Wall ***

Tense war drama is one-dimensional and wonderfully engaging because of it.  

Is it worth $10? Yes  

We occasionally forget that movies don’t need globetrotting escapades, emotional histrionics or lavish visuals to soar on the big screen. Sometimes the simplest premise can yield the greatest drama. All a movie really needs, as “The Wall” reminds us, is quality writing, sturdy directing and solid performances.

A soldier. A wall. A sniper. That’s the core of this gripping war drama set in 2007 Iraq. American soldiers Allen Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Shane Matthews (John Cena) are on a 20-hour stakeout monitoring a cobbled, crumbling wall they erroneously believe is hiding a sniper. All they can see are dead security guards and contractors who were working on an oil pipeline.

Nothing’s happening.

Shane, bored, hungry and tired, and convinced no one is there, emerges from his camouflaged post in the desert and heads toward the murder site. On his way, he’s shot. Allen follows and is shot as well, but is able to make it behind the aforementioned crumbling wall and out of the sniper’s line of fire. But his radio is down, his water supply is (literally) shot, and he’s bleeding out. The only thing keeping him company is the voice of the Iraqi sniper (Laith Nakli) taunting him in his earpiece.

What’s impressive here is what’s not shown. Screenwriter Dwain Worrell’s script never veers from the showdown at hand; there are no cutaways to Allen at home or his estranged family/friends, no shots of other military brass racing to get there, or even shots of the Iraqi sniper himself. The most we get are point-of-view shots through the sniper’s rifle, which heightens the sense of danger and concern we feel for Allen.

This creative approach is a change of pace for director Doug Liman, whose “Edge of Tomorrow” (2014), “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” (2005) and “The Bourne Identity” (2002) were high-octane, multi-faceted action thrillers. Staying contained and one-dimensionally focused allows the audience to remain in the moment, and with no distractions the suspense only increases as the film progresses. By the end you’re glad it’s only 81 minutes; the story doesn’t need more time, and the tension becomes a lot to bear.

Credit also goes to the actors: Nakli is a menacing force as the voice of the sniper, and Cena plays a tough guy, but it’s more nuanced and human than his pro wrestling alter ego. The real standout, however, is Taylor-Johnson, a recent Golden Globe winner for “Nocturnal Animals” who spends most of the film alone on screen. Not all actors can carry a film the way he does here: We know Allen is hurting, and one false move means he’s dead, yet we never tire of his ingenuity in discerning the sniper’s location and fortitude to survive. 

This is no-frills filmmaking at its finest – tense, unrelenting, and endlessly captivating. It’s mostly void of political commentary and there’s no musical score, and that’s fine because “The Wall” doesn’t need either. At its most basic and brutal level, war is about strangers killing each other, and in many ways that’s all that needs to be captured. Liman, cinematographer Roman Vasyanov (“Fury,” 2014), and editor Julia Bloch (“Green Room,” 2015) have crafted a movie-going experience that you will not soon forget.

Did you know?
After scouting locations all over the world, filming was completed in 14 days in northern…Los Angeles?!

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