Outside the Wire boasts enough requisite action fodder to keep things moving, but in failing to meaningfully develop any of its ideas, become little more than a rah-rah recruitment film.
January has long been an annual dumping ground, giving studios a chance to quietly release low-budget horror flicks, failed dramas, and whatever weirdo sci-fi flicks or Liam Neeson movies they happen to have lying around (also opening this week: The Marksman). Sometimes you get a gem like last year’s Underwater, or the best of the old-man Neeson actioners, The Grey. But usually, you end up with something like Netflix’s latest offering, Outside the Wire, a mildly diverting military action-thriller that delivers some sizable explosions for us adrenaline junkies in need of a boost, but which sorely needed someone to take another pass at the screenplay. Not slick enough to really impress or small enough to get by on scrappy charm, it sits squarely in the middle, like so much of what Netflix churns out these days.
The year is 2036 and disgraced drone pilot Harp (Damson Idris) has been sent to the demilitarized zone in war-torn Ukraine (it’s still being forcibly annexed by Russia, even in the future) as punishment. His offense: disobeying a direct order and firing on a group of insurgents, killing two Marines in the process but saving the rest of the squad. But now he’s in the shit, assigned to Capt. Leo (Anthony Mackie), a no-nonsense hardass who’s quickly revealed not to be a man at all, but rather a top-secret android prototype (represented by a translucent torso and some wiring that looks like veins). Harp has never seen combat on the ground and up close, and Leo is determined to show him the ropes, having requested him by name for his ability to think outside the box. Their first mission involves leaving the safe area and traveling “outside the wire” into an active combat zone, where they will deliver vaccines to local Ukrainian rebels who are resisting the Russian army. Along the way, they get philosophical, as Leo questions Harp’s ability to compartmentalize the collateral damage he’s caused and Harp questions Leo about his programming. There are oblique references to Asimov’s “3 Laws of Robotics,” although they aren’t specifically named, and some banter about what Leo is and isn’t allowed to do. Somewhere along the way, Leo reveals their actual mission — hunting a dangerous terrorist named Victor Koval (Pilou Asbaek), who’s looking for Soviet-era nuclear missiles left over from the Cold War. There are some big, loud shootouts, with lots of bulky infantry robots deploying alongside flesh-and-blood grunts, all of whom are shot at and/or blown up with alarming frequency. This all constitutes about half of the movie, at which point there’s a big action scene inside a bank where Koval’s men have taken hostages and Harp and Leo go rouge to take him out. It’s a pretty decent action set-piece, and a fitting climax, until one realizes there’s 45 minutes of movie left. Here, the narrative takes a sharp right turn that complicates what we thought we knew about these characters, and the movie quickly becomes a confused slog.
Directed by journeyman hack Mikael Håfström, Outside the Wire isn’t as smart as it thinks it is. Borrowing freely from I, Robot, Robocop, the ending of Terminator 2, and the military-tech fetish of Michael Bay, the movie clearly aspires to the jittery, gritty immediacy of something like Neill Blomkamp’s District 9. Instead, it’s mostly a drab, gray smear, with digitally assisted smoke and debris that looks flat and unconvincing. There’s some ok hand-to-hand combat, with Leo’s android body giving him superhuman strength and speed. But the movie gets bogged down in greater good moral quandaries, and gunning down refugees and hostages saps all the fun out of the proceedings. It’s also an ideological muddle, at first playing almost like a rebuke to the Marvel Cinematic Universe — Mackie is an MCU mainstay, and his character here has obvious parallels to Captain America; the robotic sentries look like leftover, rough draft Iron Man suits and much of the film takes place in bland, indistinguishable bunkers and hangars, but there’s a welcome number of “fucks” peppered throughout the dialogue and a decent amount of gore, including numerous headshots. There’s also some welcome criticism of the U.S.’s meddling in foreign affairs and the impersonal nature of drone warfare, where innocent bystanders are a percentage to be measured and adjusted. But Outside the Wire is a decidedly mainstream movie, and these criticisms ultimately only manage skin-deep depth. Any moral ambiguity is eventually waved away in a blatant might-makes-right ending, and, ultimately, Harp learning to shoot someone face-to-face instead of from a safe distance is framed as a good thing, as long as it’s a bad guy. In the end, to paraphrase the words of Sam Fuller, it’s just another goddamn recruitment film.
You can stream Mikael Håfström’s Outside the Wire on Netflix beginning on January 15.