Aaron Taylor-Johnson in The Wall (David James/Amazon Studios, Roadside Attractions)

The Wall is a welcome addition to the growing collection of films depicting the Iraq War. While its setting is strictly limited to the desert surrounding its titular wall, and features only three actors, director Doug Liman renders a keen, immersive sense of place, and delves deep into the psyches of fighters on both sides of this brutal conflict.

Though audiences may be expecting more action, incident, and scope from a war movie, Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s leading turn as Sergeant Isaac is a tour de force that provides more than enough for viewers to latch onto, despite the minimal plot or changes in setting. Perhaps more importantly, The Wall offers a satisfying, appropriately grim conclusion, which together with Taylor-Johnson’s powerful performance, makes The Wall worth checking out.

Two American soldiers perched on a hill are surveying an area littered with their dead comrades. Sgt. Isaac and Staff Sgt. Matthews (John Cena) suspect some sort of foul play, and discover that a deadly sniper is lurking nearby in some unseen location. The movie traces the cat-and-mouse game that this Iraqi sniper plays with the two Americans.

To its credit, the film grabs hold of you and plants you firmly in the Iraqi desert from minute one. The visual palette ranges from yellow to a slightly grittier yellow, and the sound design fills your ears with the grunting, panting, sighing, and screaming.

The Iraqi sniper, Juba (Laith Nakli), is rendered with empathy and humanity, neither a mindless, terroristic killing machine, nor some kind of saint. Rather, he describes himself as a normal Iraqi citizen who had been a teacher before his school was destroyed by American bombs. He happens to also be a preternaturally gifted sharpshooter who has built up a legendary reputation for killing scores of American GIs. Though Juba exists entirely as a voice on Sgt. Isaac’s radio, his presence is felt, and he is a worthy, forbidding adversary.

Taylor-Johnson (Nocturnal Animals) has done great work before, but has perhaps never been so front and center as in this, and he makes the most of it, showing depth, range, vulnerability, and grit in spades. The more interesting proposition, perhaps, is wrestler-turned-actor John Cena in his first serious dramatic role. In the first 10 minutes, Cena impresses as Taylor-John’s superior. His banter is natural and convincing, as his imposing physicality and talent for cussing establish his badass bona fides. Unfortunately, his character doesn’t have much to do, so those considering The Wall to see Cena’s performance may be somewhat disappointed. This is very much Taylor-Johnson’s show.

The Wall is not going to become a modern classic in the vein of The Hurt Locker, but it also isn’t an embarrassing pro-war propaganda puff piece like Act of Valor. It is a suspenseful, disciplined, tense, and realistic look at one of the countless small encounters that make war what it is. It also has the courage to build to an appropriately grim conclusion, showing that in the Iraq War, no one wins (except Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, of course).

Directed by Doug Liman
Written by Dwain Worrell
Released by Amazon Studios/Roadside Attractions
USA. 90 min. Rated R
With Aaron Taylor-Johnson, John Cena, and Laith Nakli