The Wall isn’t a bad movie. The premise is exciting: two American snipers immobilized and at the mercy of a hostile Iraqi sniper. It’s got a good director: Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Edge of Tomorrow) is well-aware by this point how to make a tense action thriller. It even has two compelling leads in Golden Globe winner, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and WWE wrestler, John Cena. It should work. Yet something about the movie doesn’t quite work and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what that is.
Hollywood has repeatedly tried to turn Taylor-Johnson into a leading man and while he was goofy and lovable in the Kick-Ass films, his work in Nocturnal Animals or even Godzilla has only confirmed that he functions best as a character actor. He is the only person onscreen for much of The Wall‘s runtime and while he pulls off the character’s accent and bravado well, there’s a distinct lack of charisma. He struggles to command our attention even when there’s nothing else to draw our attention. He has an even harder time whenever Cena appears. Cena is by no means a better actor than Taylor-Johnson, but he’s been performing bro-y masculinity much longer and he does it effortlessly. With Taylor-Johnson, you can always see the work. He’s giving a performance instead of living a character.
Granted, it’s not as if the film gives him much of a character to play. Isaac’s arc is one we’ve seen many times before: the soldier compelled to return for multiple tours as a form of self-flagellation. On its own, that story wouldn’t necessarily keep The Wall from succeeding. It’s a common soldier story for a reason. The problem is that that arc seems trite and incidental when compared to the immediate danger Isaac faces.
While Liman’s style is perhaps better-suited to big fight scenes and car chases, here, he manages to make a film that mostly takes place on the same 20-foot strip of sand seem tense and claustrophobic. He gives us an excellent sense of place, letting us and Isaac discover the area around the wall through furtive glances over and through its unsteady bricks. We understand exactly how little cover Isaac has because, like him, the camera clings to that crumbling wall. We’re always aware that it’s his only protection against an unseen, seemingly omnipotent enemy.
Speaking of, the villain (who we never see but is voiced with sadistic glee by Laith Nakli) is both an asset and a weakness. On one hand, he’s a perfect antagonist: always at least two steps ahead of our heroes and drunk with that power. On the other, he can seem almost too evil, too powerful to really feel human. On some level, that’s intentional. The villain isn’t just some guy trying to kill our heroes, he also embodies America’s comeuppance for the Iraq War. He is a faceless, determined enemy created by the war itself, bent on killing as many Americans as possible even after the war is officially over. Nine years ago, that would have felt like a damning, even daring indictment of America’s involvement in the Middle East. Now, it just feels obvious.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to The Wall‘s success is that it feels pointless. Even as we’re watching Isaac struggle to survive, it’s difficult not to wonder, “so what?” What does this one little battle in the middle of nowhere matter to the larger conflict? Who cares if Isaac survives? What does one life matter in the face of such all-consuming and possibly well-deserved hatred?
A few years ago, that hopeless, damning view would have felt thrilling. There was a time when the Iraq War and its longterm effects were the national trauma we’d spend decades processing. But times have changed. We have all-new traumas to process now and it’s difficult to care about a story that takes place a decade ago during a conflict that’s effectively over. The Wall isn’t a bad film by any means, it’s just a victim of the inevitable march of history. Maybe that’s fitting.