A film review by Craig J. Koban January 31, 2021


2021, R, 114 mins

Anthony Mackie as Leo  /  Damson Idris as Lieutenant Thomas Harp  /  Pilou Asbæk as Victor Koval  /  Kristina Tonteri-Young as Corporal Mandy Bale  /  Bobby Lockwood as Reggie  /  Enzo Cilenti as Sergeant Miller

Directed by Mikael Håfström  /  Written by Rowan Athale and Rob Yescombe


The new Netflix produced futuristic sci-fi military themed thriller OUTSIDE THE WIRE definitely has some compelling themes about the nature of mechanized warfare and the relationship between man and machine A.I., but it simply seems more disappointingly interested in delivering bombastic action and spectacle.  That, and its whole approach makes it come off like some low rent Neill Blomkamp wannabe, minus the thoughtful follow-through.  OUTSIDE THE WIRE has some high concept ideas at its core and most assuredly does have some thanklessly decent visual effects and production design, but the resulting film feels like its frankly riffing on the better parts of countless other past genre films, leaving the whole affair seeming too conventionally conceived and executed for its own good. 

The setup here in director Mikael Hofstrom's (ESCAPE PLAN) film is quite good, though.  We're very quickly introduced to the not-to-distant future of 2036 Eastern Europe, which - via some nifty montages and title cards -  is home to a bloody series of ravaging civil wars (it's a bit vague, however, on particulars, but what you basically need to know is that it's between pro-Russian insurgents and Ukrainian resistance fighters).  During one daring U.S. led operation involving a series of human and "Gump" soldiers (or heavily armed robots) the entire squad is suddenly ambushed, leading to rebellious drone pilot Harp (Damson Idris) having to make some life and death decisions in a split second.  Vehemently defying orders from his higher ups, Harp launches a drone attack, and the Hellfire missiles get the job done, but manage to kill a few of the marines on the ground (granted, nearly 40 others have been saved).  Despite Harp's call being good and sensible on paper, he nevertheless disobeyed a direct order, which places him in an immediate hot seat position.  He's deemed by military brass to be a hot headed liability on the battlefront that needs some straightening out. 

As punishment, Harp is pulled out of his relatively safe and secure drone bunker in America and is ordered to appear at a heavily fortified and contested hot zone in Eastern Europe and report to duty to his new boss, Leo (Anthony Mackie), who doesn't initially seem too keen on having Harp tag alone as a sidekick requiring some trial by fire discipline.  Oh, and Leo harbors a secret that seems very quickly revealed (maybe a bit too quickly) in the story: He looks like a regular, ordinary grunt, but is secretly a five-year-old cyborg that's so lifelike both physically and mentally that he can pass for a real human (hell, he can even curse out insults like a human drill sergeant).  He's not impervious to pain, mind you, and his programming has allowed him to evolve to the point of feeling genuine empathetic emotions, but he's still a take-no-prisoners solider that just happens to be several times more lethal, dexterous, and strong than the best ones out there.  The pair are tasked with a mission to deliver some much needed vaccines (how timely!) to numerous villages in the middle of the urban battlefields, but they also become embroiled in stopping the nefarious plan of a terrorist named Victor Koval (Pilou Asbaek) from gaining access to some Cold War era nuclear silos and launching the payloads at all of his sworn enemies.   



On a positive, some of the character dynamics between Harp and Leo are modestly intriguing, especially in turns of their character introductions and later interplay.  Harp himself is not a vile man, per se, and has his heart in the right place when in the line of duty (his drone actions killed Americans, yes, but he saved three times more...and would have risked killing all of them if he didn't act when he did).  Still, he brazenly disregards the chain of command, which causes great friction between him and his new super solider cyborg superior in Leo, who despite not being of normal flesh and blood can certainly get under Harp's skin like any other mind game playing army man.  Most compellingly, Leo - because he's capable of free thought - is also able to buck status quos and, in turn, refuses orders on his accord, something that Harp can obviously relate to.  Both seem like a well paired team in terms of their mutual abilities to act on the fly and make really tough calls, but Leo is absolutely calling the shots, many of which Harp predictably doesn't agree with. 

The future world of OUTSIDE THE WIRE is also nifty in parts, especially in the avenue of the "Gumps" themselves (an obvious in-joke nod to the cinematically famous FORREST GUMP), who are meant to be the next high end evolution in modern warfare, but seem infinitely chunkier and bumbling than Leo's nearly human artificial being (that, and the Gumps really stick out like a sore thumb on the battlefield and usually are walking targets that rarely seek cover or shelter).  Hafstrom does have some fun when it comes to fully unleashing Leo in all of his cybernetic glory, and their are some decent action set pieces that shows him hurtling himself through enemy combatants that would make Steve "Captain America" Rogers scientifically juiced up hero blush with envy.  In terms of delivering on required oumph factor, OUTSIDE THE WIRE is competent and slickly made, not to mention that it possesses a certain visual effects sheen that helps sell its imagery of tomorrow.  OUTSIDE THE WIRE doesn't look like some disposable direct-to-video cheapie, which is to its credit. 

But where OUTSIDE THE WIRE supremely lets down audiences is in its would-be enthralling examination of its premise and themes.  The screenplay by Rowan Athale and Rob Yescombe suggests a far more layered and interesting film than what we're given here, and considering the sheer enormity of the debate about military intervention in foreign countries, the pratfalls and dangers of artificial intelligence, and the disquieting psychological nature of drone war, this film simply poses so many tantalizing questions that it doesn't have the wherewithal to answer.  It's a prime example of solid ideas being given the half baked treatment, which is not assisted by the messy, episodic nature of the screenplay (more often than not, the whole film is a series of vignettes strung together more so that a fully formed story).  And for as thanklessly decent both Mackie and Idris are here, their respective characters eventually just become props being utilized to propel the narrative to a final, plot twisty climax that features everyone racing towards thwarting nuclear Armageddon.  There are so many possible avenues the film could have explored about that nature of the chain of command in the military and Leo's highly unique position in it that it becomes fairly large letdown when the makers don't delve into them in any provocative way. 

The best descriptor for OUTSIDE THE WIRE would be that it's serviceable.  This is not a bad Netflix original film, per se, but it's no where near as smart and sophisticated as it thinks it is with the underlining material.  One of its central ironies is that I think it's trying to push forward a message about the dangers of war and escalation (not to mention the thorny nature of American involvement in areas of the world where they should not stick their noses in), but seems so paradoxically infatuated in dishing out a lot of murder and mayhem in the process.  With a much more intelligently observant eye and approach, OUTSIDE THE WIRE could have potentially done something special with its concepts and transcended some of the more overused genre troupes, but it seems reticent to do so.  All in all, it's a B-grade diversion that desperately wants to attain a level of A-grade relevance.  Think of OUTSIDE THE WIRE as a bit of a brainier UNIVERSAL SOLIDER...but come to think of it...that may not be much of a compliment.

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