Taut action, far-fetched story collide in the Iraq sniper vs. sniper movie 'The Wall'

John Cena and Aaron Taylor Johnson in "THE WALL," a story about two American soldiers trapped by an Iraqi sniper. It is the first time Amazon Studios had bought an original spec script Credit: David James Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The Wall draws its title from a crumbling pile of rocks, the only thing that protects a wounded U.S. soldier from the Iraqi sniper who has him pinned down. 

This compact little action picture has a few things in common with American Sniper and Lone Survivor, but more so with Phone Booth and Locke – a grim story squeezed into a tight space, featuring a cast of mostly one. 

Aaron Taylor-Johnson is Isaac, a spotter in a sniper team (with John Cena) sent to investigate the murder of private contractors working for an oil pipeline in a remote desert location. 

The two men survey the gruesome scene from a concealed position, and the action starts as they decide to break cover and take a closer look, taking fire from the enemy sharpshooter. The exchange leaves Isaac scrambling for cover behind the wall, uncertain of the condition of his friend, unable to determine the location of the enemy. 

Director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Edge of Tomorrow) puts you in the precariously small safe zone that Isaac finds behind the toppling wall, and builds terse drama around Isaac’s resourceful bid for survival – tending to his own wounds (the movie is not for the squeamish), trying to find something salvageable in the jumble of nearby weaponry and shot-up radio parts. 

In time, we realize we are not the only ones watching Isaac improvise – the Iraqi sniper makes radio contact with the wounded American, and brags about toying with his pinned-down prey. 

There is potential here for something spooky and surreal, like A Midnight Clear, but the script feels more like an old episode of the Vic Morrow series Combat! The Iraqi turns out, improbably, to have majored in English literature – he taunts his wounded quarry with lines from Edgar Allan Poe, which Liman underscores by having a raven land on a dead body from time to time. The voluble Iraqi may also subscribe to Foreign Policy magazine, and interrogates poor Isaac on the geopolitical particulars of U.S. goals in the region. 

Isaac wants to find the guy and shoot him, but it may not matter – the Iraqi may talk himself to death. 

As he blabs on, we have time to ponder the implications of the name "Isaac." The action, we’re told, takes place in 2007, just after coalition forces declare the war to be over. Isaac survives the war, but is now in grave danger of being sacrificed for a pipeline. 

The Wall, though, is not a movie with time to expend on politics. Just 81 minutes long, its goal is to put the viewer behind the wall with Isaac, in a tight space bordered by flying bullets, and to put you in his boots — hungry and parched and a million miles from home. 

To drive home the dislocation and desperation, Liman returns to a close-up of a bright-red bag of Skittles, American comfort food, just out of Isaac’s reach. I was reminded of the pinned-down SEAL in Lone Survivor, wishing he were back home on his couch in Texas, watching Anchorman


The Wall

Directed by Doug Liman. With John Cena, Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Distributed by Roadside Attractions.

Running time: 1 hours, 25 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for language throughout and some war violence).