Outside The Wire
Hey, an actual piece of film fiction. It’s nice to get back into the swing of things, eh? And here’s one that certainly draws the eye: the cast, the director, the main apparent theme. Netflix has proven itself to be a good home for a lot of low-budget high-concept science fiction over the last few years – sometimes good, like with Code 8, sometimes not so good, like with Project Power – and it is important that this sub-genre finds that kind of home in a world where they only get the gold standard treatment by studios when they have franchise potential. Times like these are the times when imaginations might be most like to soar the highest I suppose, and those minds need their outlets.
Robotics and the various moral/ethical quandaries that can result from them are old hat for sci-fi of course, but here we get to add-on an extra layer of potential intrigue: the modern day quandary of drone warfare, what it portends and what kind of human and psychological cost that it carries. This has gone wrong too easily – some readers might remember my derision of Good Kill, one of the few films dedicated to the concept since drones became synonymous with the US military machine – but it is too important of a subject and too well-connected to the science-fiction genre to be ignored. Was Outside The Wire, with its excellent looking cast, proven director and interesting subject matter, able to make that first really good drone warfare movie? Or is at all just so much babble, once again?
In the not-too-distant future, the United States is engaged in a brutal peacekeeping operation in Ukraine, beset by Russian-backed terrorist forces. When drone operator Harp (Damson Idris) takes thing into his own hands during an engagement, he is booted into the middle of the same warzone as a form of alternative punishment. There, he is teamed with an advanced “biomech” agent named Leo (Anthony Mackie), undertaking a mission into no man’s land with unexpectedly enormous stakes.
Outside The Wire is a film that has plenty of very big ideas, and some star power and weight to explore them well, but unfortunately it just does not come together like you know it should be able to. It actually pains me a bit, to see a film this well set-up flounder like it does, but that’s the reality. Mikael Håfström, working from a script by Rob Yescombe and Rowan Athale, has done better in the past, and Outside The Wire seems likely to be forgotten soon enough, another piece of sci-fi sinking to the bottom of Netflix recommendations.
It starts and proceeds well enough. The inciting incident is a very well-filmed look at the inherent problems with detached drone flying in a combat zone, our pilot, Harp, casually eating gummy bears while observing Marines getting shot in an active combat zone. The feeling of a video game isn’t very far away. That detachment breeds a certain arrogance and maybe even a God complex: when Harp goes too far, he ends up firmly in the suck (grimly describing his decision to fire as “the call that felt most correct”). There’s enough drama in this, the hated drone pilot who got Marines killed now forced to serve side-by-side with those same Marines (the brass call it gaining “authority by experience”) that you could make a whole movie about that concept.
But then in comes Anthony Mackie’s android character, and Outside The Wire takes off in a whole new direction, something that is honestly more James Bond than sci-fi war drama. Mackie’s good in this role, capturing something of the emotional manipulation that is required as things get more complicated, of a machine imitating human norms in a bid to fit in. He’s better than Idris, who is largely an audience surrogate blank canvass, whose journey from amoral drone pilot to world-saving spec-ops wunderkind doesn’t really have the beats that it needs. The two don’t have a brilliant chemistry, everything being a tad too one-sided: in the end we’re a lot more interested in what the tin man has to say over the deer-in-the-headlights looking rookie beside him, and they jump between easy camaraderie to verbal sparring too easily. Their interaction are just repeats on a formula of “Harp says something intransigent, Leo criticises humanity”.
Still, here are the points when Håfström does his best work with the setting and the cast. War-torn Ukraine is a contrast of rolling fields, wrecked cities, refugee camps and armed military compounds. In all of the chaos, it is easier to accept the idea of an artificial man being one of the main characters, and to get a bit into the sorts of quandaries that Håfström wants to present to us; given Leo’s programming, how firmly in charge of his actions is he? What kind of compromises should we be willing to make for the sake of a mission, to the point of standing by while others get murdered? And how far should we take the idea of “the needs of the many”, given the apocalyptic conclusion we might reach? Through a good extended cameo from Emily Beecham, playing an war orphanage director turned secret agent, and the only real moments of effective back and forth between Mackie and Idris, this middle section actually works, with questions asked, plots progressed and decent dialogue presented. It’s a guy who has been programmed to feel, and a guy who has been trained not to, both by the same master: Asimov would have a field day with this.
It’s a shame then that things completely fall apart in the third act of Outside The Wire (possibly an inevitable consequence of the films’ rushed shooting schedule). Shocking twists really aren’t all that shocking, and will be among the very first “I bet that…” thoughts you will have after being introduced to the Leo’s character. Suddenly the clever themes and interesting questions get dropped, as the film suddenly becomes just another “Defeat the bad guy and save the world” exercise, where the efforts to try and explain why this has become the state of affair sounding poorly written and overly-elongated to my ears. I do not wish to spoil the film, but it suffices to say that the final 30 or so minutes overflows with fridge logic moments.
I think that Outside The Wire, might have been better served leaning into the idea of being an unlikely buddy picture, just two army guys, one of whom happens to be artificial, going out into the world to undertake secret missions and maybe learn a bit about humanity along the way: instead, there’s a misguided effort to turn the thing into an epic spy drama-esque race against time to prevent global disaster, with a shallow nod to “greater good “philosophising that is actively insulting to the audiences intelligence where it isn’t just a distraction. Oh, and Pilou Asbæk is too good of an actor to be reduced to the single scene appearance that he gets in that last act (why not have him be the drone pilot? Why does that pilot have to be American?).
But, to give Outside The Wire a bit of well-earned credit, if there was one thing I was not expecting this film to be, it was a film actually about peacekeeping. The UN isn’t mentioned here, but that’s what the Americans appear to be doing in north-eastern Ukraine anyway, trying to protect a de-militarised zone and prevent an escalation of conflict between pro-western Ukrainians and pro-Russian counterparts, with some separatist guerrillas thrown in for good measure. Outside The Wire does paint an interesting picture of such a scenario: the trigger-happy Americans go into such missions with more ammunition than sense, and prove ineffective at best in such circumstances. Leo actually does the right thing, seeking to always defuse situations, to put guns away and a find means whereby warring parties can disengage peacefully from high-pressure situations. He makes the point that emotional connection is as important for peacekeeping as cold analytics. I don’t know if this was designed as an intentional criticism of the American military as unsuited for such operations (in one memorable moment Leo outlines how his artificial skin colour is a boon, as people see him as neutral despite his American status), and a ode to the “correct” way of peacekeeping, but Outside The Wire does get some kudos from me for these little moment here and there.
The film looks pretty good, given what I can safely assume was not a huge budget. Anthony Mackie probably doesn’t come too cheap these days. There are some really engaging combat sequences that range from robot-on-robot slug fests to more personal encounters: the former reminds me of Travis Knight’s turn with the Transformers in Bumblebee in being reserved enough not to become a Bay-esque nightmare (with a bit of an Iraqi war movie vibe), and the latter takes its cues from a mixture of Bourne and John Wick: not exactly creative, but entertaining. Mackie is a perfect choice for this kind of action hero really, having the required build, confidence, physical presence and willingness to pull off the odd stunt (nothing too mad, just the odd wall jump). The mostly uninhabited expanses of Ukraine are brought to life as well as they can be for this level of finances and for the small screen: a lot has gone into the “gumps” – the less advanced drone combat machines used by the US military – so we can perhaps forgive if much of what’s left of the sets and locations of Outside The Wire sometimes look cheaper than we might like.
Outside The Wire could have been better. It’s not as brainless as 6 Underground, or as action-dominated as Extraction or as distracted with unnecessary character drama as Triple Frontier. If it had leaned into being more action-orientated and left out its ill-formed musings on collateral damage that infect the final act, it would have been a more passable diversion. If it had embraced the philosophical side of things more from the very start and worked harder on the relationship between Harp and Leo as a means of exploring that philosophy, it may have been more engaging. As it is, the film treads an unappealing middle ground, lightly touching on potential greatness in a few brief moments, but usually just accepting a humdrum status. Mackie is decent but few from the rest of the cast stand-out, the action is fine without being too memorable and the film has a decent pace even if the final destination is not one that is likely to enthrall you. Pure middle-of-the-road stuff here then, and I am not so far gone in lockdown to deem that worthy of recommendation.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).