‘The Wall’ Review: Aaron Taylor-Johnson Pinned Down by a Sniper and a Minimalist Script

Doug Liman’s pared-down, Iraq-set war movie never fully expresses what it has to say about human conflict

In the world of Doug Liman’s “The Wall,” war is solitude. There are no brothers-in-arms, no fellow comrades to lift spirits in times of despair. No romantic, handwritten letters to those you left behind, and may never see again.

Isolation becomes as quotidian as death. The mental health of soldiers deteriorates. Days blend into weeks almost as fast as months turn into years. After awhile, time is jettisoned while dread nestles in.

For the American officer in 2017, we hold these truths to be self-evident. There are no shortage of cautionary tales, some more enraging than others. And yet it’s rare that this complex agony is translated onto the silver screen. For all its potential, “The Wall” is, unfortunately, not the aberration we desperately need right now; it’s standard fare.

Set in the baking heat of Iraq, two U.S. Army Sergeants, Isaac (Aaron Tyler-Johnson) and Matthews (John Cena), are scouting a pipeline. It’s conspicuously vacant, littered with hollow bodies of contractors and private security. Unbeknownst to Isaac and Matthews, a distant sharpshooter is picking off any incoming traffic.

Liman strategically sets the stripped-down stage. This is not a Homeric war movie in the vein of “Platoon” or “Saving Private Ryan.” It’s also not another one of Liman’s frenetic, tightly-wound action films (“The Bourne Identity,” “Edge of Tomorrow”). “The Wall” begins as a low-key two-hander that unexpectedly turns into a three-hander upon the emergence of a sniper named “Juba” (Laith Nakli). The Iraqi killer is presented to us only through voice. We don’t see him.

After Matthews makes a miscalculation, Isaac is tasked with trying to save his life. Juba sits back from afar as Isaac and Matthews amble in and out of his crosshairs. The longer the day goes on, the more power Juba has over the situation. He hijacks Isaac’s radio frequency, fires bullets in his direction, and threatens to do more if they can’t just … talk.

This is where “The Wall” aims to be a different kind of movie about warfare: As Strother Martin famously observed in “Cool Hand Luke,” “What we have here is a failure to communicate,” which seems to be the central problem with Isaac and Juba. “The war is over,” Isaac pleads. “Then why are you here?” Juba asks. Neither has an answer the other wants. Bloodshed isn’t built on logic.

But despite this noble intention to create palpable tension — and dialogue — between two strangers, Dwain Worrell’s script repeatedly falls short. The camera focuses its attention squarely on Isaac; we see his suffering, his fear, his confusion. Rarely do Liman and Worrell pivot to Juba. Not only do we literally not see the shooter, but we’re also offered no insight into his headspace. There are platitudes hurled around about the futility of what they’re doing, and America’s duplicitous nature. Again and again, though, there is an absence of intimacy. We don’t know who these people are, and by about minute 45, we don’t want to.

Isaac continues to be pinned down by enemy fire. But where are the stakes when we know neither our hero nor the enemy? Worse, the screenplay forces us to view the opposition as villainous simply because they are given no other character traits.

As well-trained filmmaker, Liman understands where to place the camera and how to guide an action scene. There’s an especially gripping moment in which Isaac has been hit and has to remove the bullet lodged inside his leg. We’ve seen this before in movies, but Liman, with the assistance from his crew, understands how to communicate the pain.

Here and there, Taylor-Johnson reminds the audience that he can, in fact, act. Without anyone to truly bounce dialogue off of, he’s left to his own devices. Isaac does a lot of yelling, panting, and crying. All of it seems warranted, and some of it is convincing. This is where stronger screenwriting would fill the void.

“The Wall” aims to make a statement about the moral complexity of warfare. I’m just not sure what it is. Does Isaac represent the common soldier, uncertain of his obligations to America? Is Juba unexplained because, in this country, we’re uninterested in the explanation behind our ostensible enemies?

There are no answers here. There are hardly questions. The film is so minimalist that by the end there’s not much left at all.