This is a monster movie disguised as a war movie.
Set in the middle of Nowhere, Iraq, in late 2007, with the war officially over but blood still flowing, “The Wall” is a psychological stalker-and-prey thriller pitting a wounded American soldier against an unseen Iraqi sniper. Through a convenient plot contrivance, the soldier and the sniper are able to communicate on a local frequency, giving rise to a verbal chess game occasionally punctuated by manic action sequences involving piercing bullets, gushing wounds and guttural screams of anguish and despair.
We meet Sgt. Allen “Ize” Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Staff Sgt. Shane Matthews (John Cena) as they’re in full camouflage on a hillside, 20 hours deep into surveillance of the scene of a massacre of eight Americans — contractors and security detail — on a small construction site.
Ize speculates this could be handiwork of a “pro,” maybe even the legendary (and some say mythical) sniper known as Juba. Could Juba be lurking behind the crumbling remains of a makeshift stone wall down there?
Shane, exhausted and exasperated and impatient to the point of overconfidence, announces he’s going down to the scene to see what’s what.
Moments later, a shot rings through the dusty desert air, and it’s on.
In one of the film’s many white-knuckle bursts of action, Ize makes a mad dash down the hill while Juba’s bullets rain down all around him. Wounded and in a state of near-hysteria, he finds cover behind the wall, just a few yards from where his partner lies face down in the desert, suffering from multiple wounds and on the brink of death.
Ize frantically calls for help — but the voice on the other end of the line turns out to be the sniper. (It’s no coincidence, that nickname of “Ize.” This soldier uses a malfunctioning visual scope because of its connection to a fallen comrade. And “Ize” never actually lays eyes on the sniper hidden somewhere out there, taunting him on multiple levels.)
The back-and-forth between Ize and the sniper sometimes reminded me of the give and take between John McClain and Hans Gruber in the first “Die Hard,” or the conversations between Colin Farrell and his unseen tormenter in “Phone Booth.” Ize relies on background audio cues, e.g., the flapping of loose sheet metal, to help him figure out just where the sniper is hiding. In the meantime, the sniper pries so deep into Ize’s psyche and seems to know so much about him, there was a moment when I wondered if these radio calls were the figment of Ize’s fevered imagination.
Given the universal nature of the conflict, director Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity,” “Edge of Tomorrow”) might well have set this in an unnamed foreign territory during an unspecified time. “The Wall” is hardly political commentary, although there are a few not particularly subtle touches, as when we learn that crumbling wall was once part of a school. (Really? Because there doesn’t seem to be another structure, or even the skeleton of a structure, for as far as one can see in any direction.)
Cena’s hulking, wisecracking Sgt. Matthews spends much of the film unconscious or out of frame, essentially making “The Wall” a two-character thriller in which we see only one of the main characters. Aaron Taylor-Johnson delivers a strong performance as the likable but flawed Ize; he could be the former homecoming king/football star turned soldier from any of a thousand American towns.
Laith Nakli meets the challenge of creating the character of Juba purely via a voice heard through an earpiece. It’s a wickedly effective performance.
It’s a wise choice to never show the sniper. Like the killer in “Phone Booth” and the entity in “Lights Out” and so many villains of all forms through the decades, the longer we go without seeing the tormenter, the more terrifying he becomes.
Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions present a film directed by Doug Limon and written by Dwain Worrell. Rated R (for language throughout and some war violence). Running time: 81 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.