"THE WALL" — 2½ stars — Aaron Taylor-Johnson, John Cena, Laith Nakli; R (language throughout and some war violence); in general release
It's amazing how a rotten ending can destroy a really good movie. Doug Liman's "The Wall" is a tense, streamlined war film with some really incredible elements, but a tacky horror movie ending almost completely undermines what might have been a thoughtful and smart thriller.
"The Wall" tells the story of two American soldiers pinned down by a sniper in Iraq. It's 2007, and the Iraq War is winding down. But when Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Matthews (John Cena) are called to investigate the aftermath of a bloody encounter at a construction site, they are attacked by a hidden sniper.
Matthews is hit out in the open, and is fading fast. Isaac is hit in the knee, but is able to scramble behind the remains of a schoolhouse wall before taking another shot. Isaac desperately tries to bandage himself up and contact reinforcements, but to his horror he discovers the voice on the other end of the line belongs to the same man trying to kill him.
From here, "The Wall" becomes a tense cat-and-mouse story as Isaac and the sniper (Juba, voiced by Laith Nakli) exchange verbal jabs. Juba has the patience of Job, and seems content to try to talk Isaac to death while he waits for his prey to make a critical mistake. Isaac reluctantly plays along, enduring the psychological and physical torture while trying to use all the means at his disposal to figure out where the sniper is hiding.
For such a simple premise, Liman — who directed the first Bourne movie and served as executive producer on several others — is able to strike a consistent balance of tension and pace. He keeps things streamlined and moving along just enough to hold the audience's attention, and as the third act moves towards its conclusion, a fantastic twist amplifies the tension even more. The entire film comes in at only 81 minutes, but it feels neither too short nor too long.
As Isaac and Juba talk, meaningless banter segues into more insightful discussions about who is in the right and who is in the wrong. Isaac is forced to revisit some of his past service demons, and "The Wall" does an excellent job of transcending the two-dimensional portraits of many figures in war movies.
With Cena out of commission for the majority of the film, and Nakli little more than a garbled, disembodied voice on the other end of a radio, Taylor-Johnson gets center stage and logs an impressive effort as a protagonist trying to fend off demons external and internal. The focus on Isaac's position and point of view isolates the audience to great effect, and even feels claustrophobic in spite of the open, sprawling Iraqi desert all around.
Yet for all its excellence, "The Wall" will be celebrated or despised for its last 60 seconds, which of course cannot be detailed here. Suffice it to say, the ending has an unfortunate way of undercutting the credibility of what comes before it. Even the music chosen for the closing credits suggests that Liman isn't so interested in a resonant message than a stylish finish.
It's really a shame.
"The Wall" is rated R for language throughout and some war violence; running time: 81 minutes.