By Jack Dignan
The one-man show is a style of performance usually associated with the stage. It sees its lead actor performing an entire story without the aid of another actor. It’s a way of boasting one’s talent, and telling a unique story different to that of your typical performance, but more often than not, this style isn’t dealt with on the big screen. They don’t usually have a big selling point. Films like the recent All Is Lost can pull it off, but even then, the box office intake was less than ordinary. It’s a risk. And it’s what makes Doug Liman’s newest movie, The Wall, so exciting.
While predominantly described as an action director, no matter how big a budget Liman gets, the main thing all his films focus on are character. Even when putting Tom Cruise in a CGI-heavy alien disaster film in which time repeats itself Groundhog Day-style, Liman focuses in on character. He is, after all, responsible for bringing one of cinema’s best modern action heroes to the big screen; Jason Bourne. The Wall has just three characters throughout its entire runtime. It’s a war film without the war. Isaac (Aaron Taylor Johnson) and Matthews (John Cena) are out patrolling when they’re shot down and injured by an unseen sniper. Mathews is bleeding out in open sight. Isaac is trapped behind a single broken down wall. The sniper is watching their every move. It’s not looking good.
What we get is a tense, taut thriller that’s straight to the point. It’s a very simple concept that tells its story with little filler. The Wall clocks in at a mere 88 minutes, and it uses every moment effectively to bring the audience to the edge of their seat. With John Cena’s Matthews unable to move and slowly bleeding out, we spend most of our screen time with Johnson’s Isaac. It’s merely him hiding out behind a wall, injured and out of supplies, trying to survive with a radio unable to reach his higher ranked commanders. He’s alone. Or so he thinks. Because soon, his radio picks up a signal, except it’s not who he believes it to be. It’s the sniper, voiced by Laith Nakli, and together they taunt each other’s every move while slowly planning their own survival.
Having the film rest solely on one character requires a lot from its main actor. It’s a demanding role. But Aaron Taylor Johnson pulls through, delivering exactly what’s needed from him and so much more. His character may throw out casual racism and ignorance every so often, and his occasionally naïve way of speaking borderlines him into stupidity, but the situation he’s forced into creates much needed empathy. He’s a deep, broken shadow of the man he once was, fighting the war for reasons beyond “let’s kill some terrorists,” which is what we’re first led to believe about him. I didn’t find myself caring for him as much as I should given the situation he was in, but I found sympathy in his circumstance, and that alone created my will for him to live.
It’s difficult enough to create a diverse story with such a simple situation, let alone creating diverse camerawork, yet the entire cast and crew pulls through. They find new ways to shoot this thing. They find new ways to get our lead into trouble. Occasional repetition can be found, and when it comes you know where it’s heading, but given the brisk pace, everything comes and goes fast enough that you’re already onto the next plot point before you’ve started caring about it too much. One element of the plot that happens late in the game, and I won’t spoil what it is, felt extremely predictable. It’s as if they’d run out of things to do so added it in to extend the runtime. It’s not awful; it’s just handled with little care.
The Wall’s tagline reads, “this isn’t war, it’s a game,” and the game aspect proved to be one of the more enjoyable components of the film. Isaac and the sniper are both playing with each other. They each have an agenda, without realising what the other person’s is, and it soon becomes a game of survival. Their bickering is fun and necessary. Without it, the film would fall flat and become a derivative, boring slop, so while a lot of dialogue comes across really heavy handed and exposition filled, it’s far better than the alternative. You need it for this film to work. It allows both actors to give it their all, Johnson especially, even if it leads to an ending that, while ballsy and respectful in that regard, doesn’t quite work. It’s a convenient cop out used purely to allow for a predictable final moment.
I really can’t see people falling in love with this movie. It’s not by any means terrible, in fact I quite enjoyed it, but it is, for the most part, a disposable thriller. Liman is stretching his directing career back out into a small-scale indie movies, and it’s an immense display of talent and restraint, but it’s far from his best work. Buried, this is not. But if you’re after a nice little distraction for less than an hour and a half, The Wall is about as perfect a choice as any.
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