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Friday , November 22 2019

Sniper flick shoots itself in the foot – In ‘Alien: Covenant’, a return to gut-busting horror

This image released by Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions shows John Cena in a scene from ‘The Wall’. (AP)
Not long into the film “The Wall,” two US soldiers find themselves pinned down by sniper fire in a remote part of Iraq. One gets on the radio and screams, “Requesting extraction!” You’ll know the feeling.

This small and lazy film — featuring two actors, one evil voice and a crumbling stone wall — attempts to be deep and even existential but it can’t hide its deep flaws in the constant swirling desert sands.

“The Wall,” written by first-time screenwriter Dwain Worrell, follows a two-man sniping team in Iraq in 2007 — played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and WWE star John Cena — who are ambushed by an unseen Iraqi super sniper. Only a low wall separates the two sides. A wall. Get, it? That’s what fancy movie folk call symbolism.

The film — shot over 14 days in Southern California — really becomes a cat-and-mouse game between the hiding Iraqi and Taylor-Johnson, since Cena spends most of the film unconscious, face-down in the sand. (We actually should be relieved by that. Even when he’s awake, there are moments when the wall turns in a better performance).

Our hero, Sgt. Allen Isaac, is in bad shape: He’s been shot in the knee, he’s out of water and he’s unable to call for help. Taylor-Johnson turns in a pretty good performance, convincingly digging out a bullet from his right leg, trying to MacGyver his faulty equipment and attempting to locate his tormentor by the angle of the sniper’s shots (There’s lots of scribbling math equations in the sand.)

The Iraqi, who figures out a way to communicate with the injured Army Ranger through his earpiece, turns out to be a smarmy villain from another film — think Alan Rickman’s cunning Euro-trash bad guy from “Die Hard.”

“I just want to have a conversation with you, Isaac,” he purrs, before launching into a preposterous back-and-forth about the nature of the war and our hero’s mental state. “From where I’m sitting, YOU look like the terrorist,” he tells Isaac at one point.

The sniper (voiced by Laith Nakli) quizzically wants to force Isaac to reveal his deepest secrets — the death of a fellow soldier seems to fascinate him — and perhaps make Isaac understand the folly of the Iraq invasion. He quotes Edgar Allen Poe and Robert Frost, all in a British accent. Like a demented psychiatrist, he asks: “The war is over. You’re still here. Why?”

How does our hero respond to all this? Pure Yankee bravado: “I’m chillin’ like a villain,” Isaac tells his Iraqi counterpart, whom he dismissively calls either “bro” or “haji.” It’s hard to decide which nation comes off better with this pair of cringe-inducing representatives.

Action

The director is Doug Liman, who knows big and bold action sequences from his work on “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and “The Bourne Identity.” But here, like his stars, he is pinned down in a static piece of work. So little happens that the movie would easily work as a stage play. (The wall might get a Tony Award).

“The Wall” borrows from other sniper films, including “Shooter” with Mark Wahlberg and “Enemy at the Gates” with Ed Harris and Jude Law. It clearly owes a huge debt, too, to “American Sniper” with Bradley Cooper, which also attempted to portray the same mythical Iraqi super-sniper Juba that “The Wall” does.

In the end, it’s not clear what “The Wall” is. It fails as a psychological thriller. Nor does it say anything interesting about war. It’s too boring to be an action movie and it’s too silly to teach anything about cultural differences.

The filmmakers also clearly have no idea how to end it. But chances are you won’t be sticking around to find out. You’ll be asking for helicopter extraction after 10 minutes.

“The Wall,” an Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “language throughout and some war violence.” Running time: 90 minutes. One star out of four.

Ah, the siren song of John Denver. Who among us can resist it? Certainly, not the crew of the Covenant, a vessel powered by a golden sail cruising through space with 2,000 “colonists” in hyper sleep and years to go until they reach their destination.

But when a shock wave from a solar flare jostles the crew awake, they soon begin hearing a faint transmission of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” emanating from a curiously Earth-like planet. Such sonic waves would be expected if this was “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but this is the “Alien” universe — no place for sunny ’70s singer-songwriters. When the antsy crew deviates from their carefully planned mission to seek the transmission’s source, we know it’s only a matter of time until cosmic crustaceans begin bursting forth from bodies. Take me home? You betcha.

“Alien: Covenant” is, itself, a homecoming of sorts for a well-traveled franchise. Since Ridley Scott’s 1979 original — still the ultimate deep-space horror — “Alien” has passed through numerous directors (James Cameron, David Fincher, Jean-Pierre Jeunet) and a prequel reboot, Scott’s “Prometheus.” That film, more bloodless and brainy, sought to answer questions of origin with some pretty audacious backstory and — there’s just no easy way to say this — eyebrow-less colossuses who created the universe.

In Scott’s “Alien: Covenant,” taking place ten years after “Prometheus,” the so-called Engineers are, thankfully, nowhere to be seen. Back instead are everyone’s favorite extraterrestrials, those acid-dripping drama queens so fond of making a big entrance. Like some of the alien offspring, “Covenant” is a hybrid: part gory “Alien”-style scare-fest, part chilly “Prometheus” existentialism. It’s a tall order of thrills and theology that the ever gung-ho Scott, working from a script by John Logan and Dante Harper, comes close to pulling off.

But while “Alien: Covenant” has an ace up its sleeve — Michael Fassbender times two — the sheer number of tricks “Alien: Covenant” pulls out, some of them lifted from the five earlier installments, adds to a general sense of deja vu, which is no doubt made worse by the many “Alien” rip-offs that now adorn our galaxy. Yet what was once a slithery straightforward monster movie in space has mutated into an impressively ambitious but overly ornate saga. “Alien: Covenant” has plenty to offer, but unfortunately requires ample study of “Prometheus.”

The captain of the Covenant (James Franco, for a heartbeat) doesn’t survive the shock wave, leaving the uncertain Oram (Billy Crudup) to lead the crew that includes Daniels (Katherine Waterson, our more demure, less imposing Ripley), the imprudent pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride) and Walter (Fassbender), an upgraded model of David, the android the actor played in “Prometheus.”

It’s Oram’s decision to detour for the John Denver-blasting planet, one that initially looks smart. Once through the stormy atmosphere, they find a beautifully mountainous landscape complete with foggy lakes and fields of wheat. But there are ominous warnings, like an eerie silence because of the lack of any animals or birds. And who planted the wheat? When one of the crew members says he’s going to “take a leak,” he might as well be announcing his imminent death. (AP)

When things go haywire, the crew freak out and make such poor, emotional decisions that you, as in prior “Alien” films, find yourself rooting for the creatures with bike-helmet skulls. They might not be pretty, but they’re not foolish.

The “Alien” films have always been where our idealistic adventuring and world-conquering hubris are brutally brought down to earth, even in the deep reaches of space. That’s why the insertion of an artificial intelligence has been fitting.

Not as intensely mechanical as his newer model, he has clearly developed some unusual glitches. He quotes Byron, with jealousy. Like a robot Brando, he sings “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo” while trimming his hair. He’s a kind of frustrated poet who yearns to create like the man who made him.

The scenes between David and Walter have a strange, erotic energy. David, trying to unshackle his fellow android from servitude, urges him to make music and teaches him how to play a recorder. “You have symphonies in you, brother!” he encourages. For Fassbender, an actor capable of precision and madness in equal measure, the dual parts are a feast.

There are moments for Daniels and the Alien, too, as “Alien: Covenant” winds along. But by the film’s belabored end, the franchise has shed its host. This is no longer an “Alien” movie, it’s an android one.

“Alien: Covenant,” a 20th Century Fox release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “sci-fi violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality/nudity.” Running time: 123 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four. (AP)

By Mark Kennedy

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