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  • Roadside Attractions Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays a sniper in “The Wall.”

Friday, May 12, 2017 1:00 am

Sniper film fails as psychological exploration of war

MARK KENNEDY | Associated Press

'The Wall' *

Not long into the film “The Wall,” two U.S. soldiers find themselves pinned down by sniper fire in a remote part of Iraq. One gets on the radio and screams, “Requesting extraction!” You'll know the feeling.

This small and lazy film – featuring two actors, one evil voice and a crumbling stone wall – attempts to be deep and even existential but it can't hide its deep flaws in the constant swirling desert sands.

“The Wall,” written by first-time screenwriter Dwain Worrell, follows a two-man sniping team in Iraq in 2007 – played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and WWE star John Cena – who are ambushed by an unseen Iraqi super sniper. Only a low wall separates the two sides. A wall. Get it? That's what fancy movie folk call symbolism.

The film – shot over 14 days in Southern California – really becomes a cat-and-mouse game between the hiding Iraqi and Taylor-Johnson, since Cena spends most of the film unconscious, face-down in the sand. (We actually should be relieved by that. Even when he's awake, there are moments when the wall turns in a better performance).

Our hero, Sgt. Allen Isaac, is in bad shape: He's been shot in the knee, he's out of water and he's unable to call for help. Taylor-Johnson turns in a pretty good performance, convincingly digging out a bullet from his right leg, trying to MacGyver his faulty equipment and attempting to locate his tormentor by the angle of the sniper's shots (There's lots of scribbling math equations in the sand.)

The Iraqi, who figures out a way to communicate with the injured Army Ranger through his earpiece, turns out to be a smarmy villain from another film – think Alan Rickman's cunning Euro-trash bad guy from “Die Hard.”

“I just want to have a conversation with you, Isaac,” he purrs, before launching into a preposterous back-and-forth about the nature of the war and our hero's mental state. “From where I'm sitting, you look like the terrorist,” he tells Isaac at one point.

The sniper (voiced by Laith Nakli) quizzically wants to force Isaac to reveal his deepest secrets – the death of a fellow soldier seems to fascinate him – and perhaps make Isaac understand the folly of the Iraq invasion. He quotes Edgar Allen Poe and Robert Frost, all in a British accent. Like a demented psychiatrist, he asks: “The war is over. You're still here. Why?”

How does our hero respond to all this? Pure Yankee bravado: “I'm chillin' like a villain,” Isaac tells his Iraqi counterpart, whom he dismissively calls either “bro” or “haji.” It's hard to decide which nation comes off better with this pair of cringe-inducing representatives.

The director is Doug Liman, who knows big and bold action sequences from his work on “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and “The Bourne Identity.” But here, like his stars, he is pinned down in a static piece of work. So little happens that the movie would easily work as a stage play. (The wall might get a Tony Award).

“The Wall” borrows from other sniper films, including “Shooter” with Mark Wahlberg and “Enemy at the Gates” with Ed Harris and Jude Law. It clearly owes a huge debt, too, to “American Sniper” with Bradley Cooper, which also attempted to portray the same mythical Iraqi super-sniper Juba that “The Wall” does.

In the end, it's not clear what “The Wall” is. It fails as a psychological thriller. Nor does it say anything interesting about war. It's too boring to be an action movie and it's too silly to teach anything about cultural differences.

The filmmakers also clearly have no idea how to end it. But chances are you won't be sticking around to find out. You'll be asking for helicopter extraction after 10 minutes.