In an age when film producers feel a summer movie isn’t worth making that doesn’t include overwhelming CGI, constant explosions, and a hundred million dollar-plus budget, restraint is not dead.
Your proof is Doug Liman’s The Wall. No, we’re not talking about that movie set in China with Matt Damon, we’re talking about a tight-knit action film set at the end of the Iraq war that exceeds expectations given its limited scope.
Equal parts war drama and psychological thriller, The Wall is a commendable exercise in minimalism from the director of The Bourne Identity and Edge of Tomorrow. Somewhere around 95 percent of its runtime, The Wall only shows two actors, WWE superstar John Cena and Aaron Taylor-Johnson from the Kick-Ass films and Godzilla.
In this narrow glimpse of the Iraq war, two American soldiers are sent to investigate a sniper that’s been terrorizing a defunct oil site. After 20-plus hours of seeing nothing, they decide to call it, and inevitably fall victims into his cat-and-mouse game.
Nearly the entire film consists of Isaac (Taylor-Johnson) taking cover behind a short, crumbling wall while the Iraqi sniper taunts him over his radio, and it is undeniably impressive how much drama and suspense Liman is able to generate from this lean premise. Cena takes a leave of absence for the majority of the movie, leaving the spotlight solely on Aaron-Taylor Johnson, and he does a terrific job shouldering the weight.
Taylor-Johnson takes the audience through the full spectrum of emotions of being in this harrowing scenario. The shocking pain of being shot and having to remove the bullet, the slow burn of roasting in the desert sun, and the torture of dehydration are all viscerally real. Not only is the physical distress intimately felt, but Taylor-Johnson effectively portrays his character’s cognitive trauma as we learn more about Isaac.
Cena does a decent enough job playing a cocky powerhouse of a soldier, and after his well-received debut in comedy in 2015’s Trainwreck, it remains to be seen if he can deliver more than roles that rely on his macho appearance. For the demands of his character in The Wall, he fits the part well.
The Wall impresses as not only a tightly-restrained thriller, but it offers some thought-provoking commentary on the morality of the roles of both Americans and Iraqis in their endless conflict. The unidentified Iraqi sniper provides fascinating perspective into the Middle-Eastern psyche that is rarely present in contemporary war films.
So if you’ll feel shorted spending money on a movie that spends almost its entire run time with one man huddled behind a barrier, you might be better off renting The Wall when it comes to DVD. However, if you can respect the discipline and talent it takes to deliver effective suspense under extremely limited parameters, go check it out.