One of the best things about movies is, usually, if someone does something that makes no sense, you can wait long enough and there will be clarity. Especially in a military techno thriller. “Why would the General do that?” you cry. And then, when you get to the end, it’s, “Aha! They had me for a while!”
Such is the case with the Netflix film Outside The Wire. Unlike in real life, where you’ll never know for sure why your sister-in-law just up-and-became a jerk one day, sticking with these two baffling hours brings answers. (Trust me on this, as I almost lost hope.) Luckily, there are other rewards along the way, like seeing Anthony Mackie play an unstoppable killing machine rampaging his way through the Crimea.
When I say machine I mean it. As soon as the demoted drone pilot Harp (Damson Idris) is sent from the safety of the Nevada desert to the demilitarized hell of near-future Ukraine, he learns that his new commanding officer, Captain Leo (Mackie), is actually a super-advanced android. He can outshoot, outfight, outrun, and outthink just about anyone, and he personally selected Harp for his next covert mission.
Why? Well, we’ll get to that. But first know that Harp was sent to this morally and photographically gray area after he disobeyed a direct order, and fired a missile that killed two soldiers. Yes, in doing so, he saved 38 soldiers, but… he couldn’t have known that for certain. (It was a hunch.) Either way he’s out in the field now, where he’ll either end up dead and nobody’s problem, or he’ll learn some PR-friendly lessons about the value of life.
Of course, there’s a third thing that happens: He ends up saving the world from a Russian terrorist itching to get his hands on old Soviet nukes, and who wants nothing more than to sizzle millions of civilians throughout the United States.
This trajectory happens slowly. First, Harp is just a rookie out from behind his video game console and finally outside the (safety of the titular barbed) wire. Here, decisions have consequences, as he soon learns when Leo is able to deescalate a situation with angry insurgents. That’s not something you can learn through a computer screen, Harp!
But their mission into the zone isn’t really about delivering vaccines to a shelter, nor is it to check in on an orphanage. (One whose occupants have been made parentless thanks to the collateral damage of drone missiles.) They are really there to track down the top baddy, Victor Koval, played by Pilou Asbæk who was Theon Greyjoy’s snake uncle on Game of Thrones. Finding Victor means lot of shooting, shouting, chasing, stabbing, evading bulkier, dumber robots called Gumps, and learning hard truths about the ends justifying the means.
The sci-fi aspects of Outside the Wire are ludicrous — it is set in 2036 and the artificial intelligence on display is pie-in-the-sky, no matter how cool those Boston Dynamics videos are — but what the movie does well is grapple, in familiar but creative ways, with the ethics of combat robotics.
Writers Rob Yescombe and Rowan Athale slowly unravel a series of command paradoxes that Leo needs to outwit in order to achieve his goals. What’s best is that you know none of this at first. Like Harp, the rookie, you think Leo is infallible and acting with authority. Soon we realize that the two men share a common bond: acting on hunches.
Idris is good as the wide-eyed recruit, but Mackie is terrific, and nimbly follows somewhat in the Will Smith model. He’s cocky and handsome and cracks jokes, but he’s got a much harder edge. Plus when the fight scenes happen he’s a murder tornado. There’s one shot where he slides down a roof, leaning on his side, blasting away with a pistol. A packed Friday night theater would have bust out in applause. He then moves to another position where he’s leaping across steel bars, director Mikael Håfström shooting from below for maximum badassitude.
When the big ending comes, everyone’s motivation will be revealed, but that doesn’t exactly mean this is a movie that makes sense. (For starters, would the United States ever devote this many resources to a Russia-Ukraine border skirmish?) I’m also not sure how you can blow up missiles armed with nuclear weapons without, you know, setting off those nuclear weapons. Maybe they’ll figure that out by 2038. And maybe by then — and after Marvel’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier – Anthony Mackie will have fifteen years of A-list action flicks under his belt.
TV Guide rating: 3.5/5
Outside the Wire premieres Friday, Jan. 15 on Netflix.