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The Wall

Ninety minutes, three speaking roles, two tribes and one cracking thriller: The Wall is a lean, muscular exercise in ruthlessly efficient storytelling. Set in 2007 after President George W Bush has prematurely declared the surge in Iraq a success, director Doug Liman's high-stakes battle of wits and frayed nerves pits sharpshooters from opposite sides of the conflict against each other in the sweltering heat. Scripted by Dwain Worrell and shot over 14 days in the high desert of Los Angeles, this is a riveting story of resourceful and deeply flawed men with something to hide from each other and their superiors. The unrelenting elements become an extra character in the film and Liman cranks up the tension as the ramshackle wall collapses or a sudden gust of wind whips up plumes of sand that temporarily obscures the characters' visions. Co-stars Aaron Taylor-Johnson and John Cena are framed in uncomfortable close-up - we can see rivulets of sweat cascading off their brows, agony scored into their faces as they drag bullet-riddled limbs across the hot sand. Staff Sergeant Shane Matthews (Cena) is a sniper in the US Army, who works in the Iraq desert with a spotter, Sergeant Allen Isaac (Taylor-Johnson). The two men spend more than 20 hours under camouflage, staring through telescopic lenses at a pipeline construction site where an enemy marksman has shot construction workers and a small security team. "No way a haji sticks around this long," grumbles Matthews, convinced that the enemy is long gone. His impatience is cruelly punished when he breaks cover and a bullet tears through his flesh. Isaac races to his colleague's aid but is pinned down behind a crumbling wall while Matthews bleeds out. The radio crackles to life and the sniper, known as Juba (Laith Nakli), attempts to make contact with the American. "I just want to get to know you. Will you allow that?" the Iraqi calmly asks Isaac. Predator and prey warily trade personal information as Isaac searches through the rubble for implements to help him call for air support before his water supply runs out. "The war's not over," growls Juba, "definitely not for you." The Wall strips down the art of war to the blood-spattered bare essentials, building up a vivid portrait of Juba (who never appears on screen) through his carefully chosen words. Taylor-Johnson and Cena suffer wince-inducing physical hardship in their pursuit of realism and their performances are just as much about the bonds of brotherhood and aching regret as the pull of a trigger. The balance of power appears to see-saw violently between hunter and hunted but screenwriter Worrell is in no mood to let cheap sentimentality take root in this harsh, unforgiving terrain.