“The Wall," a story of two American soldiers facing off against an unseen Iraqi adversary, is a men-at-war story more interesting than you might imagine. But not interesting enough.
Bringing to mind Steven Spielberg's debut feature "Duel" and similar hidden antagonist fare, "The Wall" benefits from the work of director Doug Liman. His varied filmography ("The Bourne Identity," "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," the underappreciated "Edge of Tomorrow") reveals him as a restless cinematic intelligence who likes to do different twists on genre material.
Shot in 14 days, with the high desert north of Los Angeles substituting for the Middle East, "The Wall's" contained space drama, based on a Black List script by Dwain Worrell, certainly tries hard to hold and sustain our interest. But the connections necessary to make that happen just aren't there.
The year is 2007, the Iraq war is dragging on and on, and the two American snipers who are the focus of the story are clearly impatient and ready for things in country to be over and done with.
Lying in deep camouflage in a remote location are bulky Staff Sgt. Shane Matthews (John Cena) and his spotter Sgt. Allen "Ize" Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), looking through scopes and not happy with what they're seeing.
In front of them, we're told, are eight corpses killed right where they stood near a crumbling wall, all taken out within a 30-second span before they could so much as make a move to take cover.
Matthews thinks it's the work of "four or five hajis," but Isaac wonders if it was the work of one man, a superb professional, a super sniper if you will.
But though the spotter worries, presciently as it turns out, that "something's not right," Matthews, inescapably the more restless of the two, declares, "whoever it is they're gone," and goes down to investigate.
Of course, the big guy is wrong (there'd be no movie if he wasn't), and sooner than you can say Annie Oakley, Matthews is wounded by a lone sniper and Isaacs, who instinctively runs down to help, finds himself also shot and pinned behind that wall. And so the cat-and-mouse games begin.
Though neither of the Americans has any idea where the well-camouflaged shooter is, they are determined to find him and get a shot at him before he takes them out. So part of "The Wall" concerns the Americans' physical movements, which are sometimes hard to follow, as they jockey for position.
The unseen sniper, who at one point makes radio contact with the Americans, has other things on his agenda. As voiced by Laith Nakli, he is into mind games as well as mayhem, claiming, "I just want to have a conversation with you," while searching for an advantage, probing for psychological weakness in these increasingly frantic Americans.
On paper all this sounds involving, especially when you add in the script's broader goal of functioning as a parable about the futility of war in general and the quagmire nature of American involvement in Iraq specifically.
Admirable as all this is, "The Wall" can't make things work the way they should. Worrell's first produced script checks off all the military lingo boxes but never manages to sound convincing. The actors, hampered perhaps by being authentically covered in dirt and grime, do not make the required emotional connections. And the kind of tension you would expect is never completely present. "The Wall" remains a worthy exercise, but it's unable to go beyond that.
MPAA rating: R, for language throughout and some war violence.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Playing: In general release.