The Wall has an interesting premise that is, no doubt, the reason it attracted Director Doug Liman and actors Aaron Taylor-Johnson and John Cena. It's interesting both from a storytelling perspective and from a film-making perspective:
How do you deconstruct the mundanities, the humanity and the danger of war through the eyes of, primarily, only one character and keep it compelling?
There really are two things a film, like this, needs:
- an incredibly strong central performance and
- a water tight script with something to say.
It's a shame then that The Wall really only has one of these elements.
The Wall tells the story of two American soldiers (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and John Cena) on watch over an oil pipeline where everyone seems to have been shot dead. After 20hrs of surveillance and unsure if the enemy are still in the area, they decide to chance it and come out of their camouflaged spot on the rocky hillside.
When they then find themselves under fire, Isaac (Taylor-Johnson) ends up trapped behind a low, hand built wall, with no radio, no water and only a strange, foreign voice on his localised communication device for company.
What follows is meant to be an intense and curious game of verbal cat and mouse.
About half way through the movie, instead of being completely engaged and focused I did just start to think "where is all this headed"?
The film sets itself up very well - Aaron Taylor-Johnson, complete with a flawless Matthew McConaughey impression accent, is acting his tits off, Doug Liman is filming it expertly with a combination of claustrophobic close ups, slow, almost dreamy, tracking shots and the odd wide, windswept vista and the dialogue is just about intriguing enough that you do go with it.
However at a certain point it backs itself into a corner.
With only two actors in the film (and with the focus really only on the one character) and one disembodied voice, you either need to add more people or make the situation and the conversation fascinating enough to continue watching. You can't kill your lead because there's no one to take his place and you can't reveal your villain without it just becoming a bland, predictable shoot out.
The intention is to make the desperate need for Johnson's character to survive, figure out his enemy's position and, ultimately, do the right thing, compelling enough to take you through the 80 minute running time and, yep, there are some effective moments where we see him go through the motions, trying this and that to last this out or turn the tables.
The trouble comes with the dialogue.
The Iraqi sniper that has Isaac pinned down speaks in perfect English and peppers his communiqués with a combination of obvious and bland observations on the nature of good and evil in war, supposedly probing questions about Isaac's real reasons for being there and nasty but empty threats. It's like a writers 101 class on incredibly cliche'd things to put in a not-very-deep war movie.
Isaac, on the other hand, veers wildly from being a dumb, mumbling, ignorant, insult spewer to a deeply confused, emotionally wrought, somewhat pathetic and desperate chap who, despite both those states of mind is also a trained, resourceful and clever enough soldier to live through this ordeal. It all doesn't make a lot of sense to be honest. Johnson does the damn best he can with the words though.
The Wall is not going to change anybody's mind on warfare, Iraq, America or anything else it might have its sights on and because war in the middle east still rages and it's so mind-numblingly complicated, it doesn't feel the right time, yet, to start making interesting, reflective, anti-war statements like Hollywood so expertly did after Vietnam. Maybe this is a nice little antidote to the rash of chest thumping, flag waving war movies we've had of late but not enough to really make a dent or rile anyone up.
If the faint but obvious political ramblings in the film were not its ultimate intention and, instead, it is just meant to be a gripping 80 mins on the need for survival with a very weak, sort-of twist in the tale then, for my money, it didn't wholeheartedly succeed with that either.
What I can say is that it is terrifically directed, with strong performances and a neat concept that ultimately runs out of steam and purpose.
It won't be the worst thing you watch this week but I'm not sure it's worth the inflated cinema prices nowadays to go see it.
If you want to know more, watch the clips below and Amazon Studios & Roadside Attractions will release THE WALL in theaters THIS FRIDAY May 12, 2017