Review: The Wall (2017)

The Wall

One of the most interesting films of the year is an Iraq war movie starring John Cena. I know… I’m as surprised as you are.

After films like ‘American Sniper’ and ‘Lone Survivor’, stories about American servicemen in our most recent wars are well-worn territory. We’ve seen this before. We know how it plays out. These people are modern heroes and their stories should be known. ‘The Wall’ however, is a startling and refreshing approach to this formula.

‘The Wall’ is directed by Doug Liman following the terrific instant cult film ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ (or ‘Live, Die, Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow’ if you’re into needlessly wordy titles.) What he has crafted is something that examines the horrors of war by essentially creating a horror film set during war. This is ‘The Hurt Locker’ by way of the opening scene of ‘Scream.’ If that sounds fascinating: that’s because it is. This is a sun-soaked terror movie with a deliciously cruel villain.

‘The Wall’ is a remarkably sparse film. The only two actors on screen for most of the runtime are wrestler-turned-occasional-actor and meme-machine John Cena as SSGT Matthews and his spotter SGT “Eyes” Issac played by a dirt-covered and almost-unrecognizable Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Cena is the shooter and Taylor-Johnson is his spotter. The films opens as the men are running a counter-sniper mission, investigating the scene of a savage attack. They are hidden and observing the numerous dead bodies of contractors at an oil pipeline building site. The victims were all killed with headshots, the armed security did not even have time to draw their weapons. The two men question whether it is possible for anyone to be that good. They wonder how many shooters there are and if they are gone.

What follows is a tense spider and fly scenario. The sniper is still there… somewhere. These men are outmatched and alone. There is a voice on their radio. It is a notorious Iraqi sniper known only as “Juba” who is responsible for almost 100 confirmed kills. He taunts them and questions them. They are being toyed with by a poetry-quoting and sadistic monster. Juba is played by Laith Nakli with a fascinating cold intelligence. He is the most interesting character in the film and represents a bold decision by the filmmakers. These American soldiers are valiant and well-trained, but they are as out of their depth as a bird trapped in the claws of a tiger. The only protection they have during the harrowing experience is a small and crumbling wall.

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Screenwriter Dwain Worrell (‘Iron Fist’) has crafted a tight and spare story. This is a small film that packs a serious punch. At times you could picture this as a stage play and occasionally feels like a spiritual successor to Frederick Knott’s ‘Wait Until Dark’ with a memorable villain and a harrowing situation for the heroes. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is quite good as one of our cornered protagonists and while John Cena is not remarkable, he is cast well as a wisecracking and pained soldier.

Thankfully this is not based on a true story. Juba is terrifying and I sleep better knowing he is not out there somewhere. He is a force of nature. A villain along the lines of Anton Chigurh from ‘No Country For Old Men.’ Your best hope is only to survive him.

While ‘The Wall’ may get lost in the barrage pre-Summer blockbuster films, it deserves to be seen. Some may find the pacing in the middle a bit slow but I was on the edge of my seat. The ending is shocking, daring and completely unexpected. ‘The Wall’ may have a hard time finding an audience. Typical fans of John Cena or war films may find this too bleak and hopeless. Fans of horror and thrillers may ignore this because it seems like jingoistic Americana. Much like Liman’s splendid ‘Edge of Tomorrow’, this film is not easy to categorize but it is well-crafted, tightly paced and has given us the best sniper film since ‘Enemy at the Gates.’

‘The Wall’ is out in theaters on May 12th.

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