The Wall (2017)


Everything is more intense when you’re under fire.

(2017) War Drama (Roadside Attractions/Amazon) Aaron Taylor-Johnson, John Cena, Laith Nakli. Directed by Doug Liman

 

In the desert, there is not much beyond scorching sun, deep blue sky and wind-whipped sand. It is dusty, hot and dry. Humans can survive there but far from comfortably. It is a terrible place to have a war.

And yet we’ve spent the last 16 years and counting in the desert at war. In this movie, it is 2007 and the war in Iran is “winding down” as the opening credits inform us. Remembering that this is the era of the infamous “Mission Accomplished” faux pas of George W. Bush, the movie begins on a wry, humorous note. We see that there are two Marines – Shane Matthews (Cena), a sniper and “Eyes” Isaac (Taylor-Johnson), his spotter – observing a pipeline construction site. Their banter is the kind between brothers or bar buddies; occasionally vulgar, snarky for certain but affectionate nonetheless.

All the men working on the pipeline are dead. The spotter thinks they are all head shots; the sniper is not so sure. If the former is right, then there is a highly skilled sniper in the neighborhood. If the latter is correct, then it was likely an insurgent patrol that surprised the construction workers and is likely long gone. The two men have been sitting in the hot son in full camouflage for 22 hours. Matthews has about had enough. There has been no movement. Nobody is there.

He heads down to the construction site to make sure and to request that the two be picked up and returned to base. There is a crack-thump and down goes the Marine. His buddy runs out to help him and crack-thump he’s hit as well. Isaac is forced to take shelter behind a crumbling wall, one which is barely standing on its own and threatens to come down on top of him if the wind gets too high.

He is forced to take the bullet out of his own leg in a squirm-inducing moment and then needs to look to the survival of himself and his buddy who appears to be unconscious or dead. The outlook is grim; the radio antenna has been damaged so all he can pick up are people who are close by; his canteen has also been shot and the water drained out. The dehydration combined with his serious wound is likely to kill him before base camp comes looking for them.

At first things take a turn for the better; Isaac gets in contact with a patrol team who must be close by but when they keep asking for his exact position, he begins to get suspicious, suspicions which are confirmed when the man on the radio tells him that he is the sniper who has shot him. The two strike up a conversation; it turns out that the sniper is the legendary Juba, who has 75 confirmed American kills to his credit. He seems eager to get to know Isaac who wants nothing more than to figure out where Juba is so that he can shoot him.

It becomes a game of cat and mouse with Juba threatening to shoot off the face of Matthews if Isaac doesn’t answer the questions that Juba poses, the most important being “Why are you still here?” That’s a question Americans have been asking as well.

Liman has constructed a taut three-person movie that keeps the viewer on the edge of their seats from minute one. It’s a short but sweet movie that doesn’t overstay its welcome and although there is a bit of a lull in the middle, mostly keeps the tension at a high level throughout. The movie is shot so well you can almost feel the sand getting in your eyes.

There is an authentic feel to the film from a military standpoint. I’m not ex-military myself but the characters act as I would think well-trained Marines would; they are imperfect and have their moments when they let their guard down but nonetheless they (particularly Taylor-Johnson) act with a sense that the training has kicked in as the situation is assessed, immediate needs seen to and a plan to get out of a bad situation put together. We see all of this from the comfort of our theater seats (or our living room sofa as the case may be) and likely feel quite grateful that it is not us cringing beneath that poorly constructed wall.

Cena spends most of the movie lying face down in the dirt but this is maybe his best performance of his fairly brief acting career. The WWE superstar has always impressed me with his screen presence but over time he has developed some real acting skills. I’m not sure he’s at the level of a Dwayne Johnson yet but as wrestlers turned thespians go, he certainly has the tools to construct a pretty satisfying career and maybe more down the line.

Taylor-Johnson has been in my opinion on the fringe of breaking it big with some fairly good performances in fairly good movies, but nothing has really brought him to the A-list quite yet. Much of the film rests on his shoulders as he is interacting with a voice on his radio more than with a live actor as Cena is mostly unconscious in the film. That takes a lot of chops and fortunately Taylor-Johnson has them. We shall see if this finally puts him over the top and gets him that role that will elevate him into the next level.

This is a movie in which sound plays an unusually important part and Liman’s sound team comes through in spades. From the sound of the wind whipping the sand around, the crack-thump of the gunshots and the metallic bangs of the construction site, the sounds make the movie. We really don’t have a lot to look at other than endless vistas of sand and the half-finished construction site. We need the additional stimulation and we get it.

Amazon Studios helped to produce this, likely with a goal of getting their Prime users to watch this at home, but this is one of those rare movies that I think despite having an intimate setting should be seen in a theater where the outstanding sound work and impressive visuals will work best. This hasn’t gotten a ton of buzz amongst indie film fans but it deserves some. This is a very strong movie that is worth seeking out and at least here in Orlando is playing in enough theaters that there’s no excuse not to find it.

REASONS TO GO: The expected route is not taken. Taylor-Johnson and Cena; who knew? There is a lot of authenticity to this film.
REASONS TO STAY: The middle third is a little bit slow. Juba as a disembodied voice lacks menace.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of salty language and a fair amount of war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nicholas Irving, the Army Rangers sniper who served as technical adviser for the film, was nicknamed “The Reaper” during his tour of duty.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Phone Booth
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Last Shaman

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol


Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Paula Patton and Tom Cruise flee Doc Brown's new car after an 88MPH chase through Mumbai.

(2011) Spy Action (Paramount) Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg, Josh Holloway, Michael Nyqvist, Vladimir Mashkov, Lea Seydoux, Anil Kapoor, Samuli Edelmann, Ivan Shvedoff, Tom Wilkinson, Ving Rhames, Michelle Monaghan. Directed by Brad Bird

 

The term “popcorn flick” usually refers to a movie which one brainlessly munches popcorn to, one in which the viewer is engrossed in the action and in a real sense leaves themselves behind and become enmeshed in the world the filmmaker has created. Strangely, the term is often used in a derogatory fashion. From where I sit, it should be a high honor to be a popcorn flick.

And here one is, the fourth entry in the long-standing Mission: Impossible franchise which Cruise began 15 years ago as a big screen adaptation of an old ’60s spy series that in turn was a response to the wild popularity of James Bond. In many ways, the film franchise has of late outdone the Bond series, taking it high-tech and over the top.

The movie begins with Ethan Hunt (Cruise) being broken out of a Russian prison by Benji Dunn (Pegg) and Jane Carter (Patton), two fellow IMF agents. Hunt then receives orders to break into the Kremlin and retrieve information about a nuclear terrorist code-named Cobalt, who intends to destroy the information so that his true identity can’t be discovered. Hunt arrives too late; the information is gone and Cobalt has planted a bomb in the Kremlin, blowing it to smithereens. Hunt – and by extension, the IMF – are blamed.

Hunt manages to escape the hospital where he has been treated for wounds suffered in the explosion – and the dogged Russian agent (Mashkov) who is pursuing him – and is picked up by the Secretary (Wilkinson) of the IMF and Brandt (Renner), an IMF analyst. The Secretary explains that the IMF has been disavowed as an agency by the President – a situation called the Ghost Protocol – and that Hunt must stop Cobalt from initiating a nuclear horror and simultaneously clear the IMF from wrongdoing in the Kremlin explosion. Unfortunately, the Secretary destructs shortly thereafter and Brandt and Hunt barely escape with their lives.

Thus begins a globe-trotting adventure that takes Hunt and his team-by-default to Dubai and Mumbai in India, following Cobalt (Nyqvist) and his lackey Wistrom (Edelmann) and put them squarely in the path of lethal assassin Sabine Moreau (Seydoux) who had earlier murdered Agent Hanaway (Holloway who was Sawyer in TV’s “Lost” as you might recall) who also had been Carter’s lover. Carter is a bit cheesed off at Moreau because of it.

This is Bird’s live-action debut, having directed The Incredibles and Ratatouille for Pixar. He is perfectly suited for this kind of movie, the M:I series being something of a live action cartoon in any case. There are stunt sequences here that are some of the best in the series, including one in which Ethan Hunt climbs the outside of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world’s tallest building using a pair of electronic gloves that allow him to stick to the glass surface. There is also a climactic fight between Cobalt and Hunt in Mumbai in one of those garages where the cars are stacked as in a carrying case and brought out robotically. There’s also a chase in a sandstorm involving Hunt and Wistrom.

If it sounds like Tom Cruise gets to have all of the fun in this movie, he essentially does. He has the charisma and star power still to retain your attention whenever he’s on the screen. However there is also no doubt that the man is getting older (he’ll turn 50 in 2012) and that he is slowing down some. This is not the cocky self-confident Cruise who did the first Mission: Impossible film. He is not yet too old for the role but he’s certainly showing signs that he’s on his way there.

Renner gets to show off his acting chops a bit, surprisingly, as Brandt. In many ways his character is more interesting than Ethan Hunt, having been given a bit of a backstory and Brandt gets to pull off a bit of pathos which is unexpected in a movie like this. Then again, it has been widely rumored that he is the heir apparent to the franchise once Cruise decides to bow out and it seems likely that a passing of the torch will take place in the next film of the series or perhaps two films down the road.

Patton and Pegg have supporting roles, she as sex appeal and he as comedy relief and both perform ably. Patton in particular really isn’t given a lot to work with and that may leave some cold when it comes to her character, but she is sexy when she needs to be and an action heroine when she needs to be.

An action film doesn’t need to have intelligence (although that can be a pleasant plus) in order to be successful. For those looking for entertainment that doesn’t require a great deal of mental investment, this is definitely the way to go. It’s got great stunts and fights, high tech gadgets that would make Q Division green with envy, sexy women, hunky men and international intrigue – not to mention exotic locations. There may be no casinos here but the spirit of James Bond is alive and well with this franchise – and with the Bond franchise as well, thankfully. Spy movie fans are certainly living in the best of times.

REASONS TO GO: Spectacular stunts and amazing pacing makes for an exciting, breathtaking and ultimately mindless action film.

REASONS TO STAY: Cruise is a little long in the tooth for his role. Nyqvist makes for a pretty bland villain.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of violence action-style.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cruise performed the scaling of the Burj Khalifa tower sequence himself without the aid of a stunt double. The insurance company is recovering nicely from their angina.

HOME OR THEATER: Definitely in the theater – the big stunts and big vistas deserve a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Darkest Hour