Originally posted May 22nd, 2017 on thedistantcloseup.com
Single space thrillers are often interesting in concept considering they have to somehow make up for their limited mobility, so to speak, but they are equally easy to get wrong. What made 2010’s underrated Devil such a fun watch wasn’t just its murder-mystery set-up that consistently brought new twists and turns, it was how it maintained and even increased momentum through other means, namely the characters inside and outside the elevator. Other examples such as Pontypool and Rear Window effectively realized that it’s interesting, well-developed characters that push such films forward and keep them compelling.
Having directed The Bourne Identity and Edge of Tomorrow, it’s plain to see that Doug Liman is a talented, capable filmmaker. His newest picture, The Wall, itself a single location thriller about a trapped American sniper forced into a game of cat and mouse by an unseen Iraqi sniper, looked promising and felt it was capably executed with a charming cast of two in Aaron Taylor-Johnson and John Cena. Unfortunately, while this film’s main problems don’t necessarily lie with Liman, Taylor-Johnson or Cena, they themselves are trapped by the screenplay’s own hindrances.
Similar films can only be so lengthy, so The Wall is appropriately lean, clocking in at less than an hour and a half, not including credits. And to this film and debuting screenwriter Dwain Worrell’s credit, the first act makes solid use of its premise. The film begins as we look through a rifle’s scope with Cena’s Staff Sergeant Matthews, purveying the scenery of carnage surrounding a pipeline construction site. With his spotter Sergeant Isaac (Taylor-Johnson), properly nicknamed ‘Eyes,’ the two engage in playful, masculine banter to entertain themselves, until Matthews finally decides he’s had enough of waiting, and walks out into the open to investigate. As you may know, this is where events come to a head; Matthews gets shot, prompting Isaac away from his hiding place, and he is forced to take cover behind a dilapidated wall after helping Matthews won’t work.
Like clockwork, the screenplay precisely hits its marks, giving us enough time to get to know and connect with our two protagonists, only to suddenly flip the script and give Isaac, as well as the audience, an impactful sense of immediate danger. Unfortunately, the second act sees the film just as abruptly stumble after starting out of the gates so well. Though Taylor-Johnson’s performance makes the most of the material provided, there’s only so much he could accomplish with an underwritten character expected to partially carry the picture along with the film’s completely unseen antagonist. The cat and mouse game they play often feels as though it has no focus and exists solely for narrative purposes rather than serve the characters at the heart of it. When nothing happens for a majority of this period until the final act, and the script makes ineffective use of the passage of time, their conversation’s continued thematic retreading proves tiresome.
Not to mention, the picture itself is unsavorily, if also realistically bleak. Before the film’s opening POV shot, it prefaces the setting by contextualizing it in the Iraq War’s closing stages in 2007. Here we have information given to provide empathy for our two American protagonists; soldiers stuck with a tedious, if important task, feeling comfortably at ease knowing their job is almost over, only to find the opposite is the case. But while films such as Pontypool gave us fraught character relationships that develop over the course of a worsening situation, giving some heart and a glimmer of hope to the material, The Wall’s own character limitations, as well as little sense of momentum created doesn’t give us that chance for further involvement, justified by the film’s pessimistic closing scenes.
In fact, the film’s final shot forces us to ask the question of whether the film is anti-war or merely a realistic depiction of war, itself, particularly the recent history of the United States’ involvement in the Middle East from the 00’s Bush era onward. Such contemplations could be argued as relatively inconsequential, but like the progression of this film’s narrative, the country’s still being in the region has provided less chance of a positive outlook, so it’s an inquiry worth raising. Unfortunately, the film never gives any indication that it might hold such anti-war sentiment, which could have helped its case as a cautionary polemic on optimism’s futility in times of combat, as well as the idea that war is never truly over as its effects continue to hold sway.
Though Liman and Co. admirably do their best to save The Wall from figuratively collapsing, and though they occasionally craft the odd captivating scene or two here and there, the screenplay’s lack of momentum betrays their efforts. Fortunately for the director, he’ll be able to save himself with the big-budget biographical drama American Made set to come out this September. Though only Cena will have a chance to save his 2017 with the title role of the animated Ferdinand this December, he and Taylor-Johnson can rest easy knowing they did what they could.