“The sniper film” is an almost irresistible brand of thriller that straddles genres. Simple in construction, primal, it’s the ultimate “kill-or-be-killed” drama.
Snipers promise the viewer that “first person shooter” video game rush of dealing death with little chance of capture or punishment, or if you’re on the other end of the scope, the terror of a murderous, hidden assailant who must be outfoxed for you to survive.
So “The Wall,” an Iraq War combat film about a sniper team targeted by a deadly Iraqi shooter, has all the ingredients of a superior thriller. We see the conventions of the genre — the patience-testing “stalk,” the terror of bullets that whiz by before the would-be victims hear the shot, the deadly game of hunters turned into the hunted.
It boasts two quite-likable leads — John Cena (“Trainwreck”) and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (“Kick-Ass”) and a top-flight thriller director, Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity,” “Edge of Tomorrow”).
It’s got combat grit, action and actors captured in extreme, dust-covered close-ups and jolting violence. And the story is told in a brisk version of near-real time, 81 minutes from the credits-to-credits.
And when “The Wall” goes wrong, it doesn’t instantly crumble, though you can feel the foundation collapsing underneath the film’s feet. Taylor-Johnson, who must carry it, holds our interest. It’s just that we know, judging from that fatal flaw screenwriter Dwain Worrell built in as a plot contrivance, that it won’t end well, either.
Cena is Sgt. Matthews, the shooter — decked out in camouflage, staring through his scope, looking for movement in the battlefield below. Taylor-Johnson is “Eyes” Isaac, his spotter, the one who radios Matthews “You’re clear, 360,” when in fact Matthews isn’t clear 360 degrees around him.
Before you can say “Where’d THAT come from?” shots are fired, bullets enter flesh, tourniquets and painkillers are applied and “Eyes,” the guy who doesn’t take the shot, is trapped behind the remnants of a wall, trying to see where the shots are coming from, trying to overcome the panic long enough to figure out a way to get the wounded Matthews to safety and them both rescued.
The short running time doesn’t mean we don’t have time to get a taste of Eyes’ back-story. I like that the guy is not classically “heroic.” When his shooter goes down, his merest hesitation is all that keeps him from following his instincts — flee to cover, “The Wall” of the film’s title. None of that “Can’t leave a man down out in the open” suicidal fatalism. It gets irritating, after a while. Why won’t this guy, you know, SHOOT BACK?
Yeah, they explain it in the backstory, but still.
The very economy of the story and the film’s length means that writer Worrell and director Liman need something to keep the conversation going, require a short-cut to ratchet up the tension and personalize the impersonal murder of war.
They need to get this “super shooter,” apparently the mythic Iraqi sniper nicknamed Juba, “The Ghost,” into the story. He was a legendary sniper rumored to life during the Iraqi Occupation. And the script has to get this killer talking.
So they put Juba on the radio, questioning, tricking, teasing and taunting Eyes as he tries to figure out a way to save their bleeding-out skins out from under the nose of this long-distance killer with unearthly sniper skills.
And that conversation makes “The Wall” come tumbling down. It’s madly illogical, in a predictable sort of way. “Sniper” turns into “Phone Booth” right before our ears as American policy in Iraq is debated (the reason the American team is there is that Juba has gunned down a contractor detail repairing an oil pipeline), personal, probing questions are tossed out.
“I just want to have a conversation with you,” Juba purrs. “We are not so different, you and I.”
That’s an instant F — or should be — in Screenwriting 101. That one trite, “talking villain” cliche — “We are not so different, you and I.”
And whatever tension, grit, guts and on-the-ground professionalism that “The Wall” offers up — doing the math and geometry it takes to figure out where this shooter is hidden — is ruined by this inane back-and-forth.
“The Wall” needs more combat, more action and a real understanding of that combat cliche first uttered by Hermann Goering, of all people — “Shoot first, and ask questions later.”
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout and some war violence
Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, John Cena
Credits:Directed by Doug Liman, script by Dwain Worrell. An Amazon/Roadside Attractions release.
Running time: 1:21