Another month and it yet another sci-fi action film materializes on Netflix with barely a week of fanfare to precede it. I’m not sure if I’m imagining things at this point but I’m starting to think that the streaming service is trying to build itself a back catalogue out of the action projects of Avengers actors. We’ve already had Chris Hemsworth fighting half the population of Bangladesh in Extraction and now we have Anthony Mackie as a robot soldier in Outside The Wire; a similarly gritty bullet sprayer that also attempts to have a brain and a conscience on top of it’s vast amounts of ordnance.
Directed by the man who brought us 1408 and the overdue Arnie and Sly collaboration Escape Plan, does Outside The Wire pull off it’s War Is Hell message with a sci-fi wrinkle, or was it obsolete the moment it became ready to stream?
It’s 2036 and US peacekeeping forces have been deployed thanks to a civil war that has kicked off between Pro-Russian insurgents and a local resistance group in Ukraine. However, as this is (barely) the future, ground troops have their numbers bolstered by robotic drones dubbed “Gumps” who supply much needed backup in growing number of fire fights this campaign is seeing. One thing that hasn’t changed in this near future, is that remote drone pilots in movies still seem to think they know better than everybody else, which brings us to Lt. Thomas Harp who disobeys a direct order and fires a missile at an enemy target and sacrifices two wounded US marines in order to save the rest of their platoon. Narrowly avoiding a court martial by the skin of his ass, Harp is nevertheless chosen to be an example and is ordered to join the unit of Captain Leo who’s job it is to find intel on terrorist Victor Koval, a man desperate to get his hands on some nuclear weapons. However, it seems Leo has a few advantages over the usual soldier as he reveals to a stunned Harp that he’s actually a state-of-the-art android with a funky, see-through torso who’s masquerading as a human in order to carry out his missions. As Leo and Harp head out to do their job, the two debate about how exactly a machine can carry out a mission if certain parameters and fail safe measures are in place in his programming, they inch ever closer to achieving their goal but after a while, Harp starts to get suspicions of some of Leo’s actions and starts to question his methods and motives – does Leo have an ulterior motive or is Harp simply naive in the ways of ground ops and is simply not used to not being in control?
If you detect the unmistakable smell of something familiar while sitting through Outside The Wire, that’s because under the robotic, sci-fi exterior clanks the oft-told story of the morals of a war where the enemy can be obliterated at the press of a joystick. Over recent years we’ve had Good Kill and Eye In The Sky to name just two, both of which did far better jobs, but Outside The Wire also decides to go with a slight air of Training Day too, almost matching the same character traits beat for beat. Behold as the young, idealistic rookie is exposed to what life on ground level is truly like by a insanely charismatic authority figure who regularly gets his ward to warp and manipulate the rules like he’s making a damn balloon animal out of them. Of course, as it follows the Denzel Washington/Ethan Hawke path to the letter, the subsequent reveal that Leo has a sinister ulterior motive is as suprising to discover as finding out Jaws has a shark in it.
Mikael Håfström’s direction in many ways is like the lumbering, robot Gumps the film features; meaning that it’s basic, but functional while never really putting the pedal to the metal as much as you feel it should in either the drama or the action. The enterprise feels as nondescript as virtually every other sci-fi/thriller Nexflix has ever put their name to and you feel that this maybe would have been a far better fit for the stylings of someone like Neill Blomkamp who’s built an entire career out of dropping believable future tech into political shit holes.
That being said, the plot, while derivative, stays on the tracks fairly well with a couple of standout scenes popping up to divert your attention away from your phone: a scene where the terrorists employ some Russian-made Gumps that look like more rugged versions of the Hammer Drones from Iron Man 2 as Harp desperately tries to get hostages to safety from an incoming airstrike speeds up the pulse a bit and watching a bionic Anthony Mackie pull some Steve Rogers-style moves is fun (at one point he even says “I can do this all day.”). But the movie is never able to pull itself up to anything other than being just “fine”, or mildly diverting; bluntly put, it’s an action film you could keep one eye on while you do the dishes…
It’s a good thing for the performances then, which infuse the script with the personality it’s sorely lacking. Mackie (also producing) is great as Leo, as he leads with that charisma that served him well so far and his double act with relative newcomer Damson Idris works well as he plays Lt. Harp like a…. well, a harp.
Featuring appearances from other talented actors like Emily Beecham and Pilou Asbæk (who, after Game Of Thrones and Overlord, must really love playing villains) only goes to show how middle-of-the-road Outside The Wire really is as their talents fail to raise the film above anything more than a casual watch and a lackluster finale firmly puts the emphasis on “drone” in the term drone pilot…
Serviceable, although you’ve seen it all before, Outside The Wire could have benefited from more thinking outside the box…