Review: 'The Wall' Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson And John Cena

In the genre of war movies, stories about snipers deserve a category all to themselves. Rarely about the sense of camaraderie and brotherhood that define other war films, the sniper is often a lone wolf meant to operate outside of the typical military structure. That type of isolation breeds tales of legendary prowess, of superhuman snipers with hundreds of kills to their name and lurk in the shadows changing the course of a war with a single bullet. Doug Liman's tightly-focused, muscular thriller The Wall is a war movie that flips the script in a number of ways. Not only is it about brotherhood and friendship among snipers, but it presents itself as an isolated single-location horror in the vein of Buried. But it also plays on those tall tales of invincible legendary shooters, and reveals that underneath it all they are really just stories about normal men.

The Wall accomplishes a lot in a lean 82-minute runtime, proving that you don't need to be a long war movie to tell an impactful battlefield tale. The tension begins immediately as soldiers Sgt. Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Sgt. Matthews (John Cena) lay camouflaged and perched in the baking desert heat of Iraq in 2007. George W. Bush has just dropped his massive "Mission Accomplished" dud for all the world to joke about, and the sense among the soldiers still on the battlefield is "Why are we still here then"? The two have been staked out for more than 20 hours eyeing the remains of a slaughter in which 8 contractors and security personnel were gunned down. With no sign of any opposing force, Matthews is ready to call it a day, but Isaac can't get the idea out of his head that it may be "Juba", a legendary Iraqi super sniper who did the deed. Their teasing exchanges are drawn out, adding to the building anxiety with each passing minute. Finally, Matthews heads out to investigate, and their worse fears are realized when a single "crack" is heard from a distance. Matthews is hit, injured for sure and possibly dying, and only Isaac can save him. But to do so is to risk being the next victim of their unseen assailant.

After that brilliantly stressful opening The Wall isn't quite as intense, ratcheting down as Isaac exchanges in a philosophical debate over radio with the shooter (voiced coldly by Lakeith Nakli). The conversation they have isn't anything we haven't heard before, with Juba calling Americans the real insurgents and breaking down why he hates them so. It's all an effort to get inside Isaac's head, as if he doesn't have enough to deal with just trying to stay alive with no food, no water, and the sun literally cooking him in his uniform. But he's also got a past that Juba targets in on that makes the young soldier question everything about his service. In any other context its all familiar stuff, but we haven't seen it in such a small, personalized context. The concerns of the war on terror at large are removed, and all you have are these three people doing what they can to survive a nightmare scenario, and it's pretty fascinating. While there are certainly a few dry spells, which aren't helped by the dusty terrain lulling you to sleep every now and then, The Wall closes in on its characters in such a way that it makes you think about what being in war could actually mean. In bigger movies that can sometimes get lost, and The Wall brings to attention.

There's a lot of similarity between this and Liman's last movie closely linked to the war, Fair Game, in which he took a massive political conspiracy and made it about one couple's struggle to endure it. He likes movies about ordinary people getting squeezed by irresistible forces. And of course a lot of credit goes to first-time screenwriter Dwain Worrell, whose barebones script plays to Johnson's strengths while leaving some room for his character to maneuver. As a WWE fan I was a little disappointed by Cena's part in this, but as someone who remember him in The Marine years ago he has come a long way.

In the wrong hands, The Wall could have and probably would have been just another war movie, but Liman's skillful guidance and Worrell's script paint a stark, anarchic look that is tough to forget.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5