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'The Wall' stuns and joins other American virtuoso movies

Sometimes, even Ecclesiastes got it wrong. It's not true that there's nothing new under the sun -- not in current movies, anyway.

We are seeing an extraordinary new kind of virtuosity from young film actors and the audacious directors who know how to use them. These are movies of severely limited location that are brilliant one-man shows from some of the least likely stars you can imagine: Ryan Reynolds, Tom Hardy and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.

The newest one is Doug Liman's extraordinary "The Wall" starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, which appeared in a Buffalo-area theater last week when it opened at the Regal Quaker Crossing cineplex.

It's not the only time in recent days that theater has opened independent films of unusual interest in bookings through the back door that are virtually private screenings for moviegoers in an Orchard Park plaza.

Ryan Reynolds in "Buried"

Oren Moverman's "The Dinner" starring Richard Gere and Steve Coogan is another movie booked into the Quaker Crossing Theater alone. All due respect in the world for movie audiences in Orchard Park, but such a booking is an historic misreading of Buffalo movie audience demographics. The particular plaza is not one where Buffalo area moviegoers would expect the most daring and unusual American independent movies. That, for 50 years now, has been the Elmwood District, North Buffalo and the northern suburbs.

"The Wall,"which will open elsewhere this week, is a stunner.

It is set in 2007, when the Iraq War is all but over. We watch as two American soldiers -- sniper team John Cena and Aaron Taylor-Johnson -- are pinned down in a forbidding desert landscape by an enemy sniper they can't see and whose whereabouts they can't even guess.

Abandoned, blasted out vehicles could be his cover. But so could almost everything else in the blasted-out ruins. Their own cover is the fragment of a wall that was once the wall of a school. ("The Wall" is bursting with metaphors begging for decipherment.)

Cena -- the professional wrestler -- plays the bigger, tougher, more impatient soldier who emerges from cover after being sick of hiding. He is almost immediately seriously wounded and immobilized.

That leaves Taylor-Johnson to be pinned down by a sniper of such pinpoint accuracy that he can shoot out all of his communications equipment except for one local channel.

And on that channel that sinister sniper can communicate sadistically with his terrified target. He brags to his prey of his Western education. He shoves it into the face of the American grunt and quotes Poe and Shakespeare.

The enemy sniper has long been a legend among American soliders. They call him "Juba" or "the ghost." No one has ever seen him. All they know about him is his horrifying body count.

Over his communication device, he talks to Taylor-Johnson as if they had just met over beers. "I just want to have communication with you," he claims.

It's a conversation which can be stopped at any time by a sadistic shooter whose abilities are far beyond his own.

"I was a teacher in Baghdad," the sniper explains.

And now he is a living torment for soldiers who just want to go home.

But can't.

The movie is absolutely remarkable. So is Taylor-Johnson's performance, in which, for most of the film's running time, we see only him as he communicates his ongoing terror to his sadistic tormentor. It's virtually a one-man show by an actor who fully engages the talent he brought with him into American movies.

With severe limitations on every side, director Doug Liman -- whose kinetics established the film world of Jason Bourne -- keeps you in an iron grip until the shocking ending.

Some deplore that ending and call it "nihilistic." I think it's brilliantly apt in a movie that films have largely forgotten how to be.

The idea of such audacious virtuosity by actor and director together is something we've been increasingly seeing over the past few years.

Joel Schumacher's "Phone Booth" is a distant precedent for it but the two most direct and terrific descendants are Rodrigo Cortes' amazing "Buried" starring Ryan Reynolds and Steven Knight's "Locke" starring Tom Hardy.

In "Buried" we see Ryan Reynolds buried alive for the whole film communicating inside his coffin on his cell phone. He doesn't know where he is. The only sources of light are his cell phone's illumination, a lighter and a couple of glow sticks. It's a director's virtuoso stunt that should fall apart halfway through but, astonishingly, never does. It becomes more gripping with every minute. And Reynolds sustains the morbid panic perfectly. Could any modern actor seem less like a hero out of Poe? I don't think so. But Reynolds carries it off brilliantly.

Tom Hardy in the movie "Locke," written and directed by Steven Knight. (Kerry Brown/New York Times)

Even better is Hardy in "Locke" in which, for the entire film, all we see is a man driving along a highway at night and talking on his blue tooth car phone to the people intimately involved in his life and work. As we watch him drive into London on an urgent errand, it takes the entire film to discover that we are watching his life fall apart piece by piece.

You might wonder if this couldn't be just as effective circumscribed on a live stage somewhere. Weirdly, though, I don't think it could.

The movie is intensely cinematic. It's stationary but not static. It depends on the feeling of driving alone at night along a highway into a city. A destination is implied every second even though we don't know what it is. All we know is that we're in a noir world where we feel the destination with every word. And when all is revealed, it is shattering. And Hardy has given his greatest performance yet on film.

What these films are giving us is a world where claustrophobia is expanding the cinematic universe. It is sending us so deep into emotional extremes that we're touching things we'd never touch otherwise.

These are amazing movies. The latest, "The Wall," is a new masterwork.

The Wall

3 1/2 stars (out of four)

Aaron Taylor-Johnson and John Cena in Doug Liman's film about American soldiers in Iraq pinned down by snipers in 2007 after the war was supposedly over.

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