In its depiction of a war set 15 years in the future, Mikael Hafstrom’s Outside The Wire does what all the best sci-fi stories do: uses advanced science and technology to make a comment on modernity. The target in this particular case, so to speak, is the diminution of the human factor in warfare, with it becoming routine for drones operated by pilots thousands of miles away from combat zones to execute operations. In this endeavor it is ultimately rather clever, doing a deep dive on utilitarian philosophy while throwing some excellent action into the mix – but it is also a case of a movie trying to do a little too much.
It’s never not entertaining to watch Anthony Mackie whip all kinds of ass, and the conclusion of the third act is built to generate a lot of interesting conversation, but those qualities are paired with a plot that is a bit too convoluted for its own good. Pairing futuristic weapons and robotic soldiers with a complicated Eastern European civil war that breeds the rise of a nuke-hungry terrorist results in hefty dumps of socio-political exposition (in addition to the on-screen text that begins the movie), and while the effort to build out the world, a lot of it feels like a hat on a hat when just the core dynamic between the two central characters is so fascinating.
We are first introduced to Lieutenant Thomas Harp (Damson Idris) as he drops into a military firefight – albeit not physically. As a drone pilot, he observes the action on a screen from the comfort of a trailer far away. When an artillery vehicle rolls up on the scene, Harp asks for permission to launch a missile, though his commanding officer and soldiers on the ground ask for a stay while a rescue attempt is made for two injured friendlies. Coldly weighing the lives of those casualties against the 38 lives that action would save, the pilot drops his payload and ends the combat.
As a punishment for his insubordination and in hopes of giving him a proper sense of on-the-ground military service, Harp is reassigned to the DMZ in the heart of the warzone, and told to report to Captain Leo (Anthony Mackie). He doesn’t know the details of the service, but is immediately hit with a trio of surprises. The first is that he was handpicked to serve under Leo’s command. The second is that they are going on a mission beyond the DMZ a.k.a. “outside the wire” to stop a power-hungry warlord (Pilou Asbaek) from getting his hands on nuclear codes. The third is that Leo isn’t actually a human, but instead the world’s most advanced android.
While Harp takes terrifying steps into territory he previously only flew over like it was a video game, he enters a world of complex and dangerous instability where the conflict only appears to be escalating. Ironically it’s working with Leo that helps him understand the place of emotion in warfare – but at the same time he begins to realize that not everything is as it seems.
When it gets to the heart of what it’s trying to say, Outside The Wire presents a lot to think about.
It’s in the last part of that plot description that Outside The Wire is at its most interesting, as it presents some great moral conundrums that are tackled in an engaging way. Removed from actually seeing the people he is killing, Harp can make purely utilitarian decisions that sacrifice lives because on paper they represent the logical choice. On the opposite end of the spectrum, one would expect that Leo would share a similar kind of distance from humanity, but instead his programming has emotion play a key role in his directives in respect of its role in a life-or-death moment.
Unlike details regarding the history of civil war in Eastern Europe, which can get dizzying at times, the movie handles the material gracefully, and after trudging through some murky plot waters it comes to an end with a conclusion that demands discourse. The less that is said the better for spoiler reasons, but what I will say is that I won’t be surprised if the audience is totally split on which character – the protagonist and antagonist who shall remain nameless – is ultimately in the moral right.
Anthony Mackie And Damson Idris have a great dynamic that makes for the best part of Outside The Wire.
Outside The Wire is far more dramatic than it is comedic, but it does present a version of classic buddy dynamic with Leo and Harp, with the former being the hard-nosed veteran and the latter the recalcitrant newbie, and Anthony Mackie and Damson Idris establish an excellent rapport. As far as asking all the big android questions, Idris makes for a terrific audience surrogate, and just as he has done throughout his career, Mackie makes awesome swings from charismatic to commanding. As Harp begins to understand that there is an extra-jurisdictional way that Leo is able to operate, one is reminded of the back-and-forth between Ethan Hawke and Denzel Washington in Training Day – though this film goes in much wilder directions.
Outside The Wire executes some excellent android action that doesn’t pull its punches.
Not settling for just being a philosophical sci-fi film set during a future war, Outside The Wire is also committed to being an ass-kicking festival, and in that respect it proves to be a thrilling platform for Anthony Mackie tearing enemy soldiers up left and right. Featuring an android character – not to mention robotic soldiers called Gumps – gives the feature plenty of license to get stylized with its fight scenes, and Mackie shows off some slick skills as he tears through combatants, both hand-to-hand and with weaponry (in one very memorable instance, a flag pole). Following last year’s Extraction and The Old Guard, it keeps Netflix on a role releasing pulse-pounding action flicks.
For as smart as Outside The Wire can be, it also feels like a film that is a bit high-strung in its execution. When it’s not getting in the weeds with its own plot, it’s an exciting addition to the cinematic sci-fi canon, and does a laudable job leaving the audience with some big questions to ponder.
Eric Eisenberg is the Assistant Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. After graduating Boston University and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he took a part-time job as a staff writer for CinemaBlend, and after six months was offered the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take on a newly created West Coast Editor position. Over a decade later, he's continuing to advance his interests and expertise. In addition to conducting filmmaker interviews and contributing to the news and feature content of the site, Eric also oversees the Movie Reviews section, writes the the weekend box office report (published Sundays), and is the site's resident Stephen King expert. He has two King-related columns.