Netflix create such entertaining TV shows that it remains a mystery why their movies are comparatively so poor. My theory is their development process isn’t as rigorous because the operational need to provide content outweighs everything else. The result is a brand of in-house entertainment that’s essentially replaced the direct-to-video (DTV) output of the 1980s and 1990s, where the quality’s ostensibly better (thanks to slick VFX and higher star-power) but the scripts and execution betray things. Outside the Wire is the latest such example.
Set in 2036, the film follows US Marine drone pilot Lt. Harp (Damson Idris), whose dispassionate approach to his work results in him disobeying a direct order and killing two marines, claiming his actions saved many more. Believing the problem to be his lack of experience on the ground in a real war zone, Harp’s assigned to help the notoriously strict Captain Leo (Anthony Mackie) in delivering vaccines to a nearby refugee camp. The twist being that Leo’s revealed to be a highly-advanced android with super-human speed and strength, which only a few high-tanking members of the military know about. (It’s never explained why such an invaluable prototype is kept a secret, or how Leo’s astonishingly more advanced than the Boston Dynamic-inspired ‘Gumps’ we see everywhere else, or why he’s being used to do what’s effectively low-level donkey work.)
It’s actually a weird decision to have Leo be an android with a transparent torso, reminiscent of the VFX used in Ex Machina (2015). It allows for the action sequences and fights to have a heightened style and comic-book physicality to them, as Leo can do amazing things no person could, but the story of Outside the Wire wouldn’t be altered if he was a human being.
Indeed, Leo’s personality is indistinguishable from a normal person (and he even feels pain), so the story doesn’t benefit from this decision in terms of enhancing the interaction between Harp and Leo. Their relationship is key part of the story, but it’s driven by the clash of who they are as people, not the nature of their very being. It’s a shame Leo wasn’t colder and inhuman, as that’s what Harp is labelled as for his decision-making when removed from the harsh realities of warfare on the ground. It could have been a nice arc for Harp to develop his own empathy and pass that on to Leo.
Anyway, it’s pointless to suggest ways Outside the Wire could have been improved by embracing its sci-fi elements better! The fact is this film plays like a variation on Training Day (2001), which is perhaps by Damson Idris (Black Mirror) got involved because he’s said Denzel Washington is his favourite actor during interviews. His performance alongside Anthony Mackie (Captain America: Civil War) is certainly good and both actors are responsible for making Outside the War watchable, at least until the story starts feeling laboured and the sense of this being a generic action film with above-average Chappie-style VFX takes over. There’s a big surprise halfway through that, in theory, should’ve super-charged the last act, but it didn’t work for me. I’d had enough by then and it’s much too long at 114-minutes.
Mikael Håfström is the Swedish director behind this, who rose to fame with his film Evil (2003) and seemed to be on an upward trajectory with Derailed (2005) and 1408 (2007), but then made Shanghai (2010), The Rite (2011), and Escape Plan (2013) in quick succession. Outside the Wire feels like the sort of direct-to-video fare it would have been a few decades ago, so it’s competently made but can’t shake its low-budget vibe. It has the ‘filmed in Budapest with action that doesn’t leave an impression’ problem. Pilou Asbæk even shows up as a generic eastern-European warlord villain towards the end.
Outside the Wire isn’t abysmal and if you’re attuned to these movies, that clearly don’t deserve big-screen treatment, maybe it’ll entertain you enough to justify your monthly Netflix subscription. But it’s another example of these streaming originals that don’t feel entirely justified to be marketing as exclusive movies for Netflix, when they’d die a death in cinemas amidst middling reviews and weak word-of-mouth. Mackie and Idris do what they can with the material, and keep the first act entertaining as their tetchy dynamic keeps shifting about, but everything that might have been interesting to explore is either ignored or rushed over.
USA • HUNGARY | 2021 | 114 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Mikael Håfström.
writers: Rob Yescombe & Rowan Athale (story by Rob Yescombe).
starring: Anthony Mackie, Damson Idris, Emily Beecham, Michael Kelly & Pilou Asbæk.