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.
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.
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.
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