No matter what genre he explores, Doug Liman works best in grounded territory. The director behind “Swingers,” “Go,” “The Bourne Identity” and “Edge of Tomorrow,” to name a handful, knows how to make gripping, involving and often darkly funny pictures, so long as the characters are developed and the worlds they inhabit are fleshed out. It makes sense that the high-concept “Jumper” is one where he lost a grip on the proceedings. He’s an adaptable and often underappreciated filmmaker, which is perhaps why his latest, “The Wall,” came with little fanfare and seemingly zero expectations. That’s likely for the best. An intense, absorbing, brutally heart-wrenching, claustrophobic character thriller, set against the backdrop of the Iraqi war, and told in a lean 81-minute window, “The Wall” doesn’t look like much from a distance, but it’s a rigid, unflinching piece of work. Sorry to doubt you, Mr. Liman. That won’t happen again soon.
Filmed in a single location and unfolding in real time, not unlike “Buried” or “Locke,” “The Wall” follows Allan Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Shane Matthews (John Cena), a spotter and his staff sergeant, scanning the hot desert terrain, searching for their purpose after President George W. Bush prematurely hung the “Mission Accomplished” banner for all the world to see. It’s a moment of unfocused calamity in the conflict, and that’s punctuated when Isaac and Matthews’ seemingly banal mission goes awry, as a mysterious, calculating unseen shooter (voiced with chilling authority by Lakeith Nakli) leaves one man down and the other with his life in danger. Communication with their base is broken. Life-saving resources are miles away. Food and water are practically non-existent. The blaring sun is nearly as unforgiving as the man threatening their lives. It’s a matter of wits vs. action, all captured with resilient, pounding ferocity.
It’s a simple premise, and expectedly, that’s key to its effectiveness. While Liman previously dived headfirst into the politics with 2010’s underseen “Fair Game,” “The Wall” doesn’t bog itself down too much with heavy overtures and timely relevance to anything currently happening in the world. It’s basically background noise for the action and suspense that happens before our eyes. Like “Gravity” meeting “Jarhead” or “Lone Survivor,” Liman’s film is zeroed in on ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances. While the balance of character growth and explosive action can get a little muddled by the third act, it’s a testament to Liman’s accomplished filmmaking — along with Dwain Worrell‘s tight screenplay — that they can so remain so mutually impacting throughout. “The Wall” is stripped down and lean in just the right ways. Even when it feels familiar, or a little Hollywood, despite its indie trimmings, it’s so squared down and in-the-moment intensive that you’re thoroughly involved.
In these divided times, “The Wall ” is impressively committed to the durability of the human spirit. While there will obviously be more varied and layered examinations of this time in our nation’s history, and though the ending is perhaps too unnecessarily “edgy” for its own good, as an engaging, exhilarating moviegoing experience, “The Wall” exemplifies just how much Liman commands the screen when working with strong material. Armed with commanding performances, striking cinematography and exceptionally well-calibrated direction, “The Wall” is a haunting, engrossing death march, one that’s not entirely original but also not easy to shake. [B]