Outside the Wire, 2020.
Directed by Mikael Håfström.
Starring Anthony Mackie, Damson Idris, Emily Beecham, Michael Kelly, and Pilou Asbæk.
In the near future, a drone pilot sent into a war zone finds himself paired with a top-secret android officer on a mission to stop a nuclear attack.
Netflix has made it abundantly clear they’re hoping to capitalise on the present theatrical exodus that’s likely to reach far into 2021, compensating for the ongoing tentpole drought with a deluge of splashy, lavishly budgeted high-concept genre films.
But hopefully the streamer’s 2021 slate won’t begin as it means to go on, because their new sci-fi action romp Outside the Wire is a flavourless bowl of cinematic tapioca brought to the small screen with total anonymity by journeyman director Mikael Håfström (1408, Escape Plan).
In the year 2036, global warfare is more reliant than ever on technology; human soldiers are accompanied into battle by armed androids called Gumps, and America’s controversial drone program has grown even more pervasive.
After American drone pilot Thomas Harp (Damson Idris) defies his superiors to launch a strike which saves dozens of soldiers’ lives but also kills two of his fellow men, he’s sent into the field as punishment to work under the surly Commander Leo (Anthony Mackie).
But there’s far more to Leo than meets the eye; he’s an android capable of supreme feats of speed and strength, and enlists Harp’s help on a desperate mission, to infiltrate the dangerous demilitarised zone and eliminate tyrannical warmonger Victor Koval (Pilou Asbæk), who plans to launch a nuclear weapon salvo.
Decades of smart sci-fi action films have proven how the genre can use its heightened style and tone to tell deceptively timely tales about the world around us, and though Outside the Wire clearly wants to wax philosophical about the immorality of drone warfare, where detached mass murder is just a little too much like a video game, this treatment is at best heavy-handed and at worst staggeringly banal.
Films like Good Kill and Eye in the Sky have offered up thoughtful – and admittedly more grounded – commentaries on the ethics of drone strikes, yet this dopey action flick adds nothing insightful to the conversation, while making the more fatal mistake of also being an unerringly generic action jaunt.
There is precious little in the way of either intelligence or originality here, and so anything it might be trying to say about modern warfare and especially American foreign policy falls deathly flat, though a passing mention of “Russian hackers” might rouse a perverse chuckle.
The moral is simple; an arrogant drone pilot leans the error of his ways and regains a measure of his humanity – a lesson taught to him, of course, by his android superior. Through an avalanche of cornball placeholder dialogue and exposition dumps, Rowan Athale and Rob Yescombe’s script beats audiences over the head with every aspect of its story and characters, which combined with the array of tenuously-appended, follow-the-breadcrumbs missions, makes this feel a little too much like a video game.
Apt it is, then, that Yescombe is actually a video game writer, having penned numerous sci-fi action titles such as Haze, Crysis 2 and 3, The Division, and Farpoint. But as video game-y as its cutscene-like lore dumps might feel, Outside the Wire is more often a low-energy hodgepodge of prior movies from the genre, particularly Terminator 2 – from which at least three separate scenes are blatantly borrowed – District 9, and Chappie.
A big-budget action flick need not be written off entirely on poor penmanship alone, though sadly there are only scarce morsels of quality action to be found amid the carnage. Håfström’s direction never graduates beyond capturing the sheer basics, rendering most of the film’s many set-pieces grimly forgettable due to an excess of fast cutting, weird digital zooms and post-production screen shakes, over-cranked action to make Mackie’s android look inhumanly fast, and a colour palette so aggressively grey as to nearly induce slumber. Despite the R rating, it’s also depressingly restrained on the gore front.
By film’s end, I was simply numbed by the monotonous body count both human and machine, Håfström’s unfussed cutting back between opposing forces relentlessly firing rounds into one another proving neither artful nor exciting.
The saving grace, if there is one at all, is surely Mackie, who makes Leo an appealingly brusque protagonist, matched well opposite his on-the-rise screen partner Damson Idris. But Håfström only occasionally makes the most of Mackie’s trim athleticism and stoic intensity, more often leaving him waiting around for a worthy vehicle.
The supporting cast also sees a few talented performers thrown to the wolves; terrific character actor Michael Kelly is wasted in a thankless role as Harp’s cynical superior officer Eckhart, and Pilou Asbæk’s antagonist Victor Koval is scarcely more present than a cardboard cutout of the actor would be (and that’s not Asbæk’s fault by any means).
By the time the film’s facile final revelations rolled around, I found myself asking whether it was scarcely coherent or just dull enough that it felt like it didn’t make much sense. Perhaps a director with a more singular filmmaking vision could’ve made something truly exciting out of this warmed-over gunk, but as it stands there’s frustratingly little here to recommend for all but the most permissive genre enthusiasts.
It’s a trite criticism but a true one; Outside the Wire would probably be far more enjoyable as a video game than a movie.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.