By Chris Nashawaty
May 11, 2017 at 05:01 PM EDT
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Credit: David James/Amazon Studios/Roadside Attractions

Set in late 2007, just as the Iraq war is winding down and President Bush has declared victory, Doug Liman’s The Wall takes the fresh and sprawling Middle East conflict and attempts to turn it into a tense and claustrophobic cat-and-mouse game between three people. As the film opens, two U.S. Army Rangers are broiling in the high-noon sun, crouched in a patch of scrub-brush overlooking the vast desert floor below. A few hundred yards away, a half-dozen or so American contractors, who were working on a pipeline project, lay dead. What happened here? Who killed these men? And is their assailant—or assailants—still out there, hiding and watching too?

Tired of waiting, one of the two soldiers, Staff Sergeant Shane Matthews (WWE hulk John Cena), leaves his camouflaged position and heads down to survey the crime scene. His spotter and second-in-command, Sergeant Allen Isaac (Kick-Ass’ Aaron Taylor-Johnson) stays behind, watching through his scope. Shots ring out. Matthews is hit badly and falls to the ground, writhing in pain and bleeding out. Isaac attempts to run to his aid, but once he’s out in the open, he’s picked off too. He somehow manages to drag himself behind a crumbling stone wall to take cover. And there he’ll stay, wounded and pinned down, with no one coming to save him and his pal—the latest victims of the infamous Iraqi sniper known as Juba.

Based on a buzzy 2014 Black List script from first-time screenwriter Dwain Worrell, The Wall is a micro take on a macro conflict. It isn’t particularly interested in thorny questions about “Why We Fight,” or in framing that question in the gung-ho, red-white-and-blue bunting of Hollywood heroism. It’s interested in one single close-up tale of survival. And for a while it’s compelling. Strip away all of the camo and sand, and it could be a page out of a Jack London adventure yarn. Liman expertly turns the vastness of the desert into a place as cramped and confined as a sardine can. Especially when Juba’s voice (Laith Nakli) crackles over Isaac’s walkie-talkie and begins to taunt him, first with sympathy then with sadism. It isn’t enough that Isaac is scared and struggling to stay alive, now he’s being toyed with as well.

It’s hard to argue against an action filmmaker as gifted as Liman (The Bourne Identity, Edge of Tomorrow) deciding to simplify and work on a smaller canvas. But after its visceral, high-adrenaline first half, The Wall starts to grind against the storytelling limitations it’s set up for itself. Even at a lean and mean 90 minutes, the film feels stretched out. None of these men (neither the Iraqi tormentor nor the American soldiers) come to feel like real characters (although Taylor-Johnson does his damnedest, the invisible Juba is more like a nefarious, late-period Bond villain). They’re conventions—the hunter and the prey—put into a situation rather than an actual fleshed-out story. At times, The Wall comes deadly close to hitting its mark. But at others, it doesn’t even seem to know what it’s aiming at. B–