Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, John Cena, and the voice of Laith Nakli
Rated R for Language Throughout and Some War Violence
And the moral of the story is...you don't need a big budget to make a good movie.
If you're thinking of "The Great Wall," don't. That movie was awful. This one is great. Primarily because it understands that there is more to making a movie than throwing special effects at the screen. This is not an ambitious picture, but it's efficiently made and well-executed.
Isaac (Taylor-Johnson) and Matthews (Cena) are two snipers trying to outfox an opponent who has just slain a number of contractors. Believing the coast to be clear, they check out the scene but are shot at by an unseen sniper. Both are wounded, especially Matthews, who is on the verge of bleeding out. Isaac has found refuge behind a wall, but his attempts to call for help are thwarted by the enemy sniper (Nakli), who hears his every word. Now it's a deadly game of cat and mouse as they both try to outthink the other.
Actually, a better analogy than the Matt Damon dud from earlier this year is "The Shallows," the forgettable movie that pitted Blake Lively against a very persistent shark. Both have similar concepts but are on polar opposite ends of the quality spectrum. It all comes down to the execution. I identified with the hero and his intelligence, but also feared the villain because he was smart and in control. By the same token, I could care less about the girl and the shark was less scary than Bruce from "Finding Nemo."
This is a two-character show: Isaac and the sniper. Isaac is your average soldier. Not gung-ho, not John Wayne, not Sly Stallone. He's there to do a job and go home. However, he knows what he is doing, which makes him more than cannon fodder for Juba, the much feared enemy sniper. He knows how to keep a cool head and formulate a plan even when Juba messes with his head.
Juba is a nasty piece of work. In addition to, you know, trying to kill Isaac, he psychologically tortures him. He asks his quarry personal questions and uses Matthews as a pawn. Even creepier, he knows that Isaac is injured and how any help will come and how to destroy it.
Director Doug Liman keeps things moving at a nice clip, and throws in new wrenches into the film's story at regular intervals. He's also good with sleight of hand. Some of what happens we expect (and we're meant to). Other times we're surprised. He keeps us on our toes, and I was never sure what was going to happen next. More importantly, I cared.
Which brings us to the ending. I'm not going to give anything away, but I will say that it's shocking but after it wears off you realize that it was well set up and makes perfect sense. I'm not sure I can say I was satisfied, but I will happily give the film points for its audacity.
The film's suspense lags a little here and there and Laith Nakli isn't creepy enough to do the character justice, but there is more than enough here to get a recommendation from me. Prepare for a lot of arm clutching and bruised forearms, though.