The Wall (Doug Liman, 2017) 1½ stars out of 4.
The Wall, from director Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow), tries very hard to achieve that seriousness of purpose that shouts importance with every spoken word. Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Godzilla) and John Cena (Trainwreck) play American soldiers pinned down by a hidden sniper in the final days of the second Iraq War, some time in 2007. Isaac (Taylor-Johnson), wounded and trapped behind the titular wall with a damaged radio, finds himself unable to communicate with his distant unit, but with a direct channel to his unseen antagonist, who taunts him while Matthews (Cena), much more severely injured, bleeds out nearby. The script, by Dwain Worrell (Operator), centers on the psychological cat-and-mouse dialogue between Isaac and the voice of Juba (Laith Nakli, Amira & Sam), also known as “The Ghost” or “The Angel of Death. He’s a man who has made it his mission to kill as many Americans as possible. Given the bodies that strew the pipeline site where the story takes place, he’s not bad at his job.
And so the two men banter, back and forth, trading rationalizations about who did what, and why America, with its hubris and arrogance, has it coming. For such a talky movie, it features its share of gruesome close-ups, as Isaac does his best to bind his own wound, pulpy flesh oozing through his bandages. Given the limited action, it makes sense that director and screenwriter would feel the need to wake us up like this, but all it does it raise the question of what kind of movie they’re trying to make, exactly. Is it an exposé of the violence of war? A dissection of American overreach? Torture porn? There’s nothing wrong with combining genres, but one has to do more than simply shoehorn the one into the other. Still, clumsy though the various parts may feel, the real narrative crime here is how boring and obvious the whole affair becomes. Were it not for Taylor-Johnson’s strong performance, I would rate the film even lower.
Even Taylor-Johnson cannot save the script from its platitudes, however. While at first Isaac resists being drawn into Juba’s mind game, he has nothing else to do but writhe in pain, and so before long the film becomes a contest over who can force the one to utter the most on-the-nose condemnation of the other. Even when Juba explains his motivation – like an actor explaining the set of given circumstances to a performance, which normally remain unspoken – that potentially heartfelt moment is lost in a sea of exposition. Bad metaphor, sorry. We’re in the desert. At least in that, Liman, normally a competent director when it comes to mise-en-scène, succeeds. We feel the heat, and the sand, and the subsequent physical torment of our two soldiers (though detailed inserts of pus and bone, as mentioned, are not necessary). But other movies have placed us in the Iraqi quagmire more effectively, so my advice is to stay home and watch one of them, instead. Try David O. Russell’s 1999 Three Kings (granted, about the first Iraq War), which traffics in the same metaphysical terrain, only with better writing.