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Front Page - Friday, June 2, 2017

Critic's Corner: 'The Wall' offers tense desert showdown

War movies tend to render the horrors of global conflict on a grand scale. As nation rises against nation, thousands of troops, planes, tanks and boats clash in battle, leaving a blood-smeared landscape in their wake.

But the idea that war is a brutal, savage thing that defies human reason can be rendered just as effectively on a small scale, as it is in “The Wall,” a tense, tightly built battleground thriller from director Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity”).

Films are rarely smaller in scope than “The Wall,” which places three men on a patch of sand in the Iraqi desert and gives two of them a gun: U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Shane Matthews, a sniper sent to investigate a pipeline construction site; his spotter, Sgt. Allen Isaac; and Juba, an Iraqi sniper.

As “The Wall” opens, the construction site is littered with Juba’s victims – contractors sent to Iraq to build the pipeline. Matthews and Isaac have already spent 22 hours surveying the scene from a distance when the former decides the coast is clear and descends into the carnage to collect the radios of the dead.

It’s a trap, of course, and Matthews pays dearly for his mistake. Isaac tries to rescue his dying friend but is also wounded. The sniper damages his radio and destroys his water bottle in the process, suggesting Juba is no weekend warrior.

Isaac winds up near the crumbled remains of a stone wall that was once part of a school. Shielded from Juba’s bullets, he’s safe from immediate harm but also bleeding out from his wound and drying up under the desert sun. At this point, a clever game of cat and mouse begins, with the odds stacked against the American soldier.

Perhaps the most pertinent observation I can make about “The Wall” is the briskness with which it moves. There’s a stretch in the middle where it drags a bit, but the film is short enough at 81 minutes that it never becomes boring or feels padded for length.

Isaac is engaged in a desperate struggle to survive, and time is not his friend. Likewise, there’s no room for filler in “The Wall.” For the audience to remain in the moment with Isaac, the film must maintain a good clip, and it does, thanks in part to a lean screenplay by Dwain Worrell.

The direction by Linman is strong, too, especially the way he forces the viewer into a small space without suffocating them.

“The Wall” begins with wide shots of an open and mostly empty space that establish the location and create a sense of vulnerability. After Isaac cozies up to the wall for protection, the audience primarily sees the action from within his limited space and through the scopes of the two combatants.

Yet, the film never bogs down visually, as Linman uses this limited perspective to gradually reveal new elements of the battlefield and items Isaac could use to shift things in his favor. His pursuit of these items provide some of the tensest moments in “The Wall.”

Linman also never shows the Iraqi sniper, which I thought was a good decision. This keeps the audience focused on Isaac and surrounds Juba with an air of mystery.

During a radio conversation with the Iraqi, Isaac tells his enemy he believes he’s a legendary sniper with dozens of confirmed American kills. I believed it, too. How else to explain the skill of a marksman who can put a bullet through a water bottle and destroy a radio antenna from hundreds of yards away?

Even the conversations between Isaac and Juba, which would be the slow part of any other war film, are used to good effect.

There was a point at which I started to wonder if these two soldiers were bonding over their moment alone in a broader conflict. Would Juba’s humanity take over? Would he let Isaac go? I liked the way “The Wall” toyed with me.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s fine work in front of the camera is another reason “The Wall” works so well. As Isaac, he not only carries nearly the entire movie on his back (if I had to guess, I’d say he’s in 80 percent of the shots), he’s set on “intense” the entire time. It’s a good performance that supports the excellent work done behind the camera.

“The Wall” kept me guessing – and caring – about what was going to happen until the very end. While it seems people are divided on its climax, I fall within the camp of viewers who liked it. To say more would ruin it for you, though, so I’ll stop there.

Linman took the limitations of “The Wall” and fashioned a gripping cinematic experience. The movie slows down at times, but I still left the theater feeling as though I hadn’t blinked for an hour and a half. I’ve seen war movies done on a larger scale that provided a less satisfying experience.

At this point, if you’re going to see “The Wall,” it will probably be through Amazon’s streaming service, so keep an eye out for it.

Three stars out of four