The Netflix Action Movie Industrial Complex continues unabated with a deeply mediocre military thriller that can’t get a handle on its lukewarm critique of drones.
Netflix has really made a play in recent years to corner the high-concept action movie market: Extraction, The Old Guard, 6 Underground, Project Power et al. feel like they fill the algorithm’s innate need to fill the John Wick-sized hole in the moviegoing public’s diet. It’s that sweet spot that Outside the Wire is unabashedly trying to fill: sci-fi concepts right out of Black Mirror blended with brutal, highly-choreographed fight sequences. The trouble is, despite (or, more precisely, because of) its military sci-fi premise, Mikael Håfström‘s (1408) latest crumbles under its own sociopolitical weight.
The setting: 2036, where a civil war in Eastern Europe has broken out and an increasingly roboticized US military has (natch) come in to play “peacekeeper” in a demilitarized zone that comprises former Ukraine. As a confusingly-stylized map shows us, the military is there to defend Ukraine from the Krasnys, a fictionalized military group led by a mysterious leader named Viktor Koval (Pilou Asbæk, aka “That Asshole From the Final Season of Game of Thrones“). Sure, that means troops on the ground (and Chappie-like security bots called Gumps), but they’re also defended by drones, one of which is piloted by rookie Lieutenant Harp (Damson Idris) from halfway across the world. After a bad call ends up getting wounded soldiers killed, he’s sent to the front lines himself as part of an initiative to familiarize him with the people he’s meant to defend, up close and personal. “It’s a bullshit pass for pilots who fuck up,” Colonel Eckhart (Michael Kelly) clarifies.
His assignment? To play second fiddle to Captain Leo (Anthony Mackie), who turns out to be a fourth-generation android with lightning-fast reflexes, a killer instinct, and a transparent carapace under that tight-fitting shirt. He’s on a special operations mission to track down Koval and stop him from stealing some old Russian nukes, and Harp is coming along for the ride.
In concept, Outside the Wire borrows a great deal from its influences: it’s a modern military thriller of the Black Hawk Down mold, which screenwriters Rowan Athale and Rob Yescombe augment with iconography from Children of Men, District 9, and Ex Machina. But it struggles to do much outside of those influences: its tale of Russian warlords and stolen nukes is as pat as can be, and its pinballing philosophies regarding military conflict don’t much extend beyond “drones bad” – a correct assessment, to be sure, but one that lacks a lot of nuance.
It doesn’t help, honestly, that the script constantly toys with our (and Harp’s) understanding of Leo’s motivations. He’s a sentient android, but one beholden to a certain set of rules: he’s a ruthless killing machine, but can never fully go off the leash. He’s seemingly loyal to the mission of stopping the bad guys, but will also go off-script to torture some folks, or collaborate with a resistance leader (Emily Beecham) to accomplish his objectives. Leo’s programmed to feel emotion, and explicitly says he was given a Black face as a psyop — “it conveys neutrality.” (The film doesn’t explain why this is so.)
It’s a shame, too, because the film’s best moments are when Mackie and Idris simply get to interact, and they build an intriguing buddy-soldier dynamic. Mackie’s really made bank as an action star of late, but I’m really fascinated by his recent turn towards roles that cast him as more than human: his season as a body-swapped vigilante in Altered Carbon, a time-traveling paramedic in Synchronic, and this. Hell, even the Falcon treads similar ground. He throws himself into the role here, as well, a swaggering lead with no small amount of intensity with glimmers of humor, which makes his status as an android just as uncanny to us as it is to Harp.
The film wants to have its Black Mirror cake and eat it too.
Idris, to his credit, is a winsome presence once the exposition-heavier first act ends and he can loosen up a bit. He’s consistently out of his element, a rookie thrown into one dangerous situation after another, finally seeing the consequences of the combat he usually sees from the other side of a screen. That particular lesson is laid on a little thick (especially in one late-film montage), but Idris reads as realistically cautious and vulnerable compared to the loose-cannon Mackie.
If Outside the Wire had stuck to its initial premise — using Mackie’s android as a clean metaphor for the destructive, impersonal nature of combat drones — and wrestled with it, that could have made a decent enough romp, squicky War on Terror iconography aside. The idea of a weapon of war that can feel is an intriguing one, especially when paired with someone who needs an in-person reminder of the immediacy of war after waging so much of it from a safe distance.
But the film wants to have its Black Mirror cake and eat it too, as Leo begins to display increasingly erratic behavior that causes Harp to question his trust in his superior. Is Leo a sentient soldier whose programmed emotions lead him to become a Dirty Harry-like loose cannon to get the job done? Or is his emotional intelligence a mask to hide more sinister intentions? Mackie plays both sides of the fence well enough, but the film itself toys with one too many fakeouts about Leo’s true nature that the moral gets muddled.
The half-baked nature of its sci-fi allegory would be better tolerated if the film were a tight, well-staged action film. But Hafstrom’s action isn’t well-staged or inventive enough to really sell the promise of its premise. Quick cuts and jittery camerawork fumble the fancy footwork Mackie performs as a hyper-competent robot, and some of Leo’s more interesting moves get obscured by these fleshy edits. And the bombed-out, amber-and-grey-and-gunmetal color palette doesn’t help, especially when it’s obscured by plumes of fog and barely-lit corridors. Similarly obfuscated is its supporting cast, as Asbæk, Kelly, and Beecham get little to do but spout exposition and act as avatars for their respective factions.
In the end, Outside the Wire just can’t justify its weighty two-hour runtime, and distracts itself with all the ho-hum action theatrics such that it can’t focus on its strengths: the thematic weight of its premise, and its two game leads. With a few more passes, there could be an intriguing critique of the destructive consequences of the US military apparatus in the War on Terror, as well as the use of drone warfare to gamify armed conflict. But as is, Netflix’s latest can’t land on a position, and ends up missing its target by a fair distance.
Outside the Wire straps into the drone pilot seat on Netflix January 15th.