Fans of Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar-winning war drama The Hurt Locker will recall that one of the film's most tense and thrilling sequences involved a lone enemy sniper laying waste to a group of US troops and UK mercenaries deep in the Iraqi desert. Pinned down in the blazing heat with little more than rubble for cover, the fear, confusion and discomfort of the men coming under fire was made all the more nail-biting courtesy of a near-silent soundtrack interrupted only by the 'hiss' and 'thwack' of bullets either missing or finding their mark.
If that sequence felt somehow rushed or underplayed to you, however, then Doug Liman's latest film The Wall is every bit the fix you're looking for, since it's a movie that stretches that scenario to feature length. The setup is fantastic: six bodies – contractors, engineers and security personnel – all lie dead and scattered around an oil pipeline construction site, whilst way up in the hills a two-man American sniper team (John Cena and Aaron Taylor-Johnson) scans for any sign of the enemy. After 20-something hours of incident-free observation, they declare the site clear and march on down to make the final call in person, whereupon the enemy sniper reveals he's very much still in the picture and cripples both men with a series of sudden and devastating body-shots. As one of the soldiers lies exposed and bleeding, the other scrambles to find cover behind the tiniest, flimsiest shale wall. It's here that the remainder of the movie takes place.
Without giving too much away, this is very much Taylor-Johnson's film, for it's he who occupies the vast majority of screen time, turning in an impressively physical and committed performance. You can't help but grit your teeth and squint in sympathy as he endures excruciating pain and the non-stop swirling of dust. Indeed, the immersive nature of the desert setting is one of the film's greatest strengths, evoking such a dry, overbearing heat that you feel compelled to rehydrate throughout.
Where The Wall goes awry is when the enemy sniper begins taunting Taylor-Johnson's character over his radio, at which point some hackneyed horror-style lines ("We're not so different, you and I") begin to rear their head. Quoting Robert Frost and Edgar Allan Poe, and pontificating on the hypocrisies of American militarism, the unnamed gunman's dialogue feels like an attempt to bring an unnecessary extra layer of menace to what's already a fine and gripping story. It'd be like taking the shark from The Shallows and having it lecture Blake Lively on the inequities of big game fishing. The threat is already there, you don't need anything more.
Even so, like The Shallows, The Wall achieves a lot with very little. Full credit to Liman and company, who have crafted a single-setting, single-actor showcase that proves you don't need a $200 million budget to tell a powerful and engaging war story.