I really wish I could tell you The Wall is good. It’s the latest from Doug Liman, who did Swingers and Go and Mr. and Mrs. Smith before melting all our faces off with Edge of Tomorrow. (If the title he’s chosen for the Edge sequel is whacked out beyond the telling of it, well, we all have our off days.) It stars John Cena, who’s creditably edged his way into acting with Sisters and Trainwreck, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who’s… y’know… good in things. He’s fine in Kick-Ass, but I don’t care for that movie in a general sense. I found him grim and humorless in Godzilla, and I completely forgot he was in Avengers: Age of Ultron until two minutes ago, but being in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina will get you a long way with me.
Regardless. You’d think you’d know there’s a new movie from the director of Edge of Tomorrow that came out last Friday, right? But you probably didn’t, because it’s being buried, because it’s not that good. It’s not even interestingly bad.
As the opening card tells us: “It’s 2007, [and] the Iraq War is winding down.” (Yes, the opening card has a grammatical error in it. Really setting the stage there.) American soldiers Isaac (Taylor-Johnson) and Matthews (Cena) have remained behind to sweep things up, which in this case means responding to an attack that’s left several contractors and a pair of US servicemen dead. They find themselves pinned down by the legendary sniper Juba, who puts Matthews out of commission pretty early on. (This movie needed Cena’s charisma and comic chops, but he’s lying in the dirt for most of it.) And… that’s the movie, basically. Isaac is trapped behind a wall, talking to the unseen sniper (Laith Nakli) on a walkie-talkie, trying to figure out a way to locate Juba, take him out, and escape.
It’d be a fine premise for a 45-minute television episode—there’s a psychological horror element that even makes it Black Mirror adjacent, though it’s lacking the technology component—but stretched out to movie-length, it drags. The Wall isn’t even a long movie—just one hour, 21 minutes. But it feels like twice that long, because for most of it you’re just watching one side of a conversation. It’s not particularly compelling.
It could have been. A talk-heavy movie isn’t necessarily a boring one, and there is some suspense in Isaac’s attempts to outwit Juba. But screenwriter Dwain Worrell made a key error in essentially making Juba a supervillain. At one point he actually says “we’re not so different, you and I” like he’s a fucking Bond villain. From the minute he shows up, he’s the best, most effective, most badass sniper who ever existed or ever will. He doesn’t just shoot Isaac, though he easily could have. He shoots his water bottle, the antenna on his radio, and an artery in his leg, ensuring that he’ll have a long, painful death instead of a quick and easy one. Because… Juba’s a sadist, I guess? It’s never adequately explained. Attempts are made to flesh out his character, primarily by having Juba allege that, of the two of them, Isaac is the real terrorist. But Juba still feels like cardboard, precisely because he’s so powerful. You never see (well, hear) him sweat. He never really loses control of the situation. He has all the cards. It nukes the all-important tension, because there’s never any question of Isaac being able to escape. And in the end, [SPOILERS] he doesn’t. Isaac thinks he’s killed Juba, but it’s all a ruse. Juba shoots down the helicopter that’s taking Isaac to safety—yes, the sniper shoots down a helicopter—and then, impersonating a soldier, calls for backup. It turns out he’s the one who called Isaac and Matthews in the first place. More soldiers will come. He’ll kill them. The cycle continues.
It’s a dark ending, an an effective one. And Taylor-Johnson, on whose shoulders this movie rests, gives a solid performance as the terrified, salt o’ the Earth Texas soldier. But none of it is enough to elevate The Wall over the merely mediocre.