“The Wall” is a war movie, make no bones about it. Despite the slick premise, the refreshingly sound logic, the ‘real-time’ experience of the characters and the blistering pace, it presents the conflicted ethics and morality of the American war in Afghanistan. When a sniper Mathews (John Cena) and his spotter Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are dispatched to a pipeline construction site after a firefight, their patient observation of the carnage reveals that the ambush was done by a professional sharp-shooter. When they’re ambushed they realise that they’re in the sights of the ghost; an Afghan sniper named ‘Juba,’ the war’s most renowned killer.
In the interests of maintaining the surprises that you have in store, one will have to dance around some of the specific details. Worrell brings the tactics and the personalities to the front and lets the setting do the legwork as an allegory for American occupation throughout the Middle East; while the war simmers away in the distant background, an oil pipeline crew guarded by ex-military personnel is murdered by a frighteningly efficient lone sniper.
Director Doug Liman and writer Dwain Worrell introduce us to the relationship between the two leading characters Isaac (Taylor-Johnson) and Mathews (Cena) under a barrage of ribbing and poking fun. If these guys weren’t in fatigues, their duo would be at home in films like ’Swingers’ or ‘Go.’ John Cena’s Mathews is the burly U.S action man. Wandering into Juba’s line of fire in the midst of investigating the attacks his swollen figure isn’t one of intimidation but is a giant target. In a series of disorientating flashes, Liman makes one tormentor feel like a swarm. Mathews is hit with a possibly fatal wound, Isaac must leave their perch, streak into the kill zone and avoid a barrage of death shots to survive. He narrowly escapes death, pinned down behind a lonely wall, the remains of a long abandoned dwelling. Liman establishes this as the site of Isaac’s torment.
Liman and Worrell take an interesting approach with the politics of war. The majority of the film occurs in an unfolding interrogation from the omniscient voice of the sniper ‘Juba.’ Isaac (Taylor-Johnson) is being probed about his life, about details that Juba has gleaned while listening to the conversations between he and Matthews before they became ensnared in his web. Juba’s superior position is both a tactical and intellectual one. Detached from the danger, surveying the landscape, he’s finding the associations and challenging the conceptions of Isaac as to U.S purpose in his country; and wanting to sniff out the weakness in his motivations. Liman uses the taunts of the antagonist as both a means of distraction but a way for the audience to empathise with this lone wolf.
Laith Nakli is the voice of Juba, and because we don’t actually see him for the duration of the film – he’s only heard through Isaac’s radio; he is essentially the narrator of the film. Through the radio crackle we get to build an image of a real man behind the legendary killer. His intellect, his ability, his rational thoughts contribute to a picture of the humanity that’s been ground into this sadistic instrument of death.
Isaac though, exemplifies those military assets at the bottom of the rung and doesn’t have the luxury of pondering as he’s bleeding from numerous injuries, increasing dehydration and the prospect that in a moment of lapsed concentration he’ll be picked off by a bullet with surgeon-like precision. Liman finds ways to shoot this tiny wall as a domineering force of protection and a flimsy paper screen. Isaac must continue to block out the chatter, especially the probes into his motivations and psyche. In an inferior position he must solve the problem and formulate a plan to overcome and kill Juba. Taylor-Johnson’s performance as Isaac is a mixture of raw irrational emotion and focused practical puzzle solving. Liman pushes Taylor-Johnson to deliver a magnetic sympathetic performance in “The Wall.” For an actor whose best work comes in roles where he gets to play the wholly disturbing, the key antagonist in Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals,” it’s a nice change of pace to see him on the end of a form of torture.
The ending lingers; first because it seems to surrender to bombastic impulses and finally because despite the flurry it’s the arrival of the film’s subtext to the story. “The Wall” saves its best and most surprising moments to last.