“Outside the Wire” is Netflix’s latest attempt to play in the big budget sandbox traditionally dominated by major studios following “Extraction” and “The Old Guard” last year. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of those efforts, but certainly has commendable attributes of its own.
It’s 2036 in Eastern Europe. Lieutenant Thomas Harp (the likable Damson Idris of “Snowfall”) is a drone pilot who’s almost court-martialed after disobeying a direct order that saves the lives of 38 Marines while killing two others. Harp’s instead assigned to Leo (Anthony Mackie) so he can learn the value of human life and the importance of boots on the ground. Ironically, Leo’s a cyborg. Leo’s convincing enough in conveying humanity that no one knows his secret except for Harp and the base’s commander Eckhart (“House of Cards” vet Michael Kelly).
This pairing of a man who thinks like a robot and a robot who longs to be a man proves interesting. The duo are in pursuit of a terrorist named Viktor Koval (Pilou Asbæk), who’s hell-bent on unleashing Russia’s entire arsenal of nuclear weapons. There’s plenty of extrapersonal and combat-related strife along the way.
Much of what works about “Outside the Wire” is attributable to its action and world-building. Serving alongside humans are robotic soldiers referred to as “Gumps” because they’re stupid-looking. They’re convincingly rendered and lend the proceedings considerable blockbuster heft. Mackie is also a certifiable badass as Leo. He’s allowed to engage in much more practical stunt work here by comparison to his efforts in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A lot of this feels like playing a video game as opposed to watching someone else play a video game, which I mean as both a compliment and an insult. My ultimate preference is that movies feel like movies.
Now for the negative: There’s a twist that takes place a little over halfway through “Outside the Wire,” which really took me out of the picture and almost entirely removed whatever charm it had going for it. Much is made of Asbæk’s Koval character, but he ultimately proves to be little more than a cool intro and a McGuffin. I know this dude can chew scenery as evidenced by 2018’s “Overlord” and his turn as Euron Greyjoy on “Game of Thrones.” I wish the filmmakers had allowed him to eat!
The work of Swedish director Mikael Håfström (“Escape Plan”) is unsurprisingly workmanlike. It’s kind of bland, but better than much of his filmography (i.e. “Derailed,” “1408”) in my estimation. The screenplay by Rowan Athale and Rob Yescombe feels like it could use another draft and ultimately does a major disservice to Leo. (I’m surprised Mackie would let this fly as he’s a producer on the picture. Then again, there could be a substantial differential between the movie Mackie wanted to make and the one I wanted to watch?) Much of the video game feel probably stems from Yescombe’s time spent writing video games such as “Rambo: The Video Game” and “Tom Clancy’s The Division.”
“Outside the Wire” while entertaining seems a tad confused. Like almost all war movies it’s anti-war, but it also seems to be advocating for the retention of the human element in combat. This seems somewhat counterintuitive to its overall message. The enterprise feels like “Training Day” meets “The Terminator” with a dash of drone pics “Eye in the Sky” and “Good Kill” thrown in for good measure. It’s often successful in aping these other projects, but seems to lack a voice of its own.