We've seem to hit a stride of contemporary post-apocalyptic filmmaking that's billowed from the woodwork, commanding both action-based dispositions such as The Book of Eli to more realism-bound cautionary tales like John Hillcoat's adaptation of The Road. As such, the independent circuit has also taken up arms to delve into some of the lesser-addressed genres that'd benefit from the setting, making broad use of this environment at their disposal. That's where James Boss' gritty hybrid flick White Wall comes into the picture, where prickly knife fights and terse martial arts scenarios rub elbows with Western standoffs across a barren sect of America. Everything doesn't cohesively snap together into an enthralling film on its own, but all the distinctive components -- from the film's look to the pragmatic battle choreography -- grapple our intrigue just enough to drag us through this fretful, disquieting tale.
Instead of nuclear holocaust or some other destructive calamity, this time we're working with a disease that's crippled humankind. A massive wall partitions survivors of the epidemic from the rest of the infected world, placing everything else outside of the walls on a form of quarantine. Director James Boss doubles as our central protagonist, Shawn Kors, who's a survivor of the VXII virus brought up to be a warrior within a form of orphan rehabilitation camp. He, along with his brother Jude and a few other "brethren", escaped the confines of the camp, where Shawn began living a meager yet secreted life as a janitor in a medical facility. Once one of his fellow escapees meets a grotesque demise, all while Jude enacts a reign of terror, Shawn's forced to put his skills to use as he scrambles to locate his brother -- while trying to discover the roots of the virus.
Along the way, Shawn meets a smarmy, in-the-know rogue named Dryden (Gary Kohn) who teaches him the ways of close-quartered tactical knife fighting, offering a lengthy opportunity for us to witness a "training" session with a desert as a backdrop. That passing of survivalist knowledge, though it's more an exhibition of warrior skills concocted for our impulsive pleasure, shows that White Wall has its roots entrenched in a post-apocalyptic atmosphere where time's rewound to a "simpler" point. It's not elaborated on ad nauseum, instead allowed to be absorbed on a more intuitive level as burly, menacing wanderers scour the wasteland for victims in a Western-style environment. James Boss' film shows a clear knowledge of the contemporary assertion of what we'd see after a calamity, while filtering elements from Fallout and Cormac McCarthy's novel "The Road" for its dim look and tone. He also incorporates spritzes of moody music, including an entrancing but misplaced track from Sigur Ros' "Agaetis Byrjun" album, that attempt an ethereal mood among Shawn's slow strutting through the desolate walled-off metropolis.
However, it all seems like a veneer constructed as little more than a clever backdrop for unarmed combat, eschewing instinctive thoughtfulness in lieu of unremarkable but operative battle sequences wedged within mediocre-at-best acting. Director Boss himself finds the spotlight in a majority of the brawls, and it's clear he's got the chops for martial arts film work. He's agile without being overtly flashy, seeming to be both a gift and a curse since most of his fights aren't terribly memorable -- aside from the film's brassy, bare-knuckled coup d'état at the close. White Wall's major set piece comes in a square-off between the film's key villain, Jude, and several of the larger marauders featured threateningly early on, which draws our attention in a purely blow-for-blow fashion. Perhaps it's because there's not a lot of emotive connect with brothers Shawn and Jude or with the underlying storytelling layer involving the creation of the VXII virus, essentially kneecapping its momentum as any kind of cautionary tale.
White Wall has the problem of knowing how to adeptly realize the elements present within its runtime, from the sun-baked cinematography and the sandy atmosphere to the combat, without knowing how to weld it all together into a cohesive post-apocalyptic narrative. That's contrary to its exquisite teaser trailer (click here to see it), which relishes in supremely moody music stitching together the fight sequences and obscure visual motifs into something entrancing. Yet every element in the feature, as seen here, sticks out like sore thumbs, only sparking admiration for its low-budget undertakings without constructing a wholly-enveloping motion picture -- a sensation that leads all the way up to the film's unsurprising plot twist, culminating into an exercise of overextending ambition. There are certainly things that impress within James Boss' labor of love, especially the outline of a premise involving brotherhood within a crumbled society, but they're for naught when aspiration clouds a film's focus.
Video and Audio:
Though it might now show through the screen captures included with this review, White Wall is a very, very darkly-photographed film that spends a lot of time in detail-swallowing shadows. The 2.35:1 widescreen image, enhanced for 16x9 televisions, thus isn't exactly a model for excellence in the digital medium. The sides of people's faces, the production design, and much more gets engulfed in stark contrast, though the inky solidity of image's dark quadrants is commendable. But yes, there are sequences that do take place against rocky textures and sandy expanses within a firm stretch of sunlight, and they're mostly pleasing renderings of terrain detail and color palette shifts.
Oddly, the Dolby Digital 5.1 track has some audibility issues, primarily with the dialogue. First off, the volume level on the disc's soundtrack has been dialed down quite a few notches, as it took cranking up my receiver +10db to even get to a moderate listening level. Even then, the dialogue still has points of barely-audible clarity, which doesn't balance well against the sustainable music and crisp fighting effects. Speaking of which, the scoring and the trounces rendered from punches and kicks become the dominating positives in Well Go USA's audio track, and they flicker to the rears and fronts with fine clarity. While a Dolby Digital 2.0 track adorns the alternate audio options, there are NO subtitles to speak of -- not even in English.
Along with the second, full-length Theatrical Trailer (2:01, 16x9) that fits the mood of the film more properly, a lengthy Making-Of (40:43, 16x9) piece delves into the creative process behind James Boss and his writers / production crew. Sketches, behind-the-scenes shots, and interviews with many involved paint a picture of how assembling this low-budget post-apocalyptic martial arts film came to fruition. Boss discusses how his crew didn't show up the second day of shooting, how he wanted to give each of his characters a different fighting style, and how he scoured around looking for the right knives to use for the film's weaponry.
Again, it's worth noting that the initial teaser trailer for White Wall projects exquisite promise within James Boss' construction, and it generates quite a bit of enthusiasm in these eyes. However, in the way it's shown here, the well-constructed elements at play don't mesh into the promising picture that it could've been. Instead, this indie post-apocalyptic showpiece can only be digested for its unevenly matched successes -- highly competent fist-to-fist or blade-to-blade fighting, finely-build atmosphere, and an intriguing back story that tries adamantly to strengthen the film's roots as a narrative. Rent It.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site