Producers: Ben Pugh, Erica Steinberg, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Anthony Mackie and Jason Spire Director: Mikael Håfström Screenplay: Rob Yescombe and Rowan Athale Cast: Anthony Mackie, Damson Idris, Enzo Cilenti, Emily Beecham, Henry Garrett, Michael Kelly, Kristina Tonteri-Young and Pilou Asbaek Distributor: Netflix
Replication is a major aspect of Mikael Håfström’s futuristic war movie in which a human soldier is reluctantly partnered with a super-powered android. That sort of unlikely pairing is a Hollywood staple, and “Outside the Wire” embraces the template. It tries to massage the cliché by toying with some substantive matters, but never really says anything of any depth about them. Nor is it exciting enough to escape the status of a medium-grade action flick. Still, it might be enough to satisfy people craving a helping of bombs and bombast.
The script is set in 2036, when continuing conflict in Ukraine has led to the introduction of a U.S. “peacekeeping” force to separate pro-Russian separatists, led by the ruthless Viktor Koval (Pilou Asbaek), from Ukrainian forces. Lt. Thomas Harp (Damson Idris), a cocky drone pilot situated in a comfortable suite of monitors back in the States, decides to reject direct orders not to engage in a firefight where a troop of Marines have come under assault and two of them are in imminent danger. He fires his weapons, allowing the others to escape at their expense.
An ethics committee that takes up the issue of his insubordination does not discharge Harp, but assigns him to combat duty in Ukraine under the command of Captain Leo (Anthony Mackie), a super-advanced “gump,” or android soldier. Most of the older-model gumps are just skeletal metallic machines, but Leo looks human, with a face designed to be reassuring to those with whom he negotiates.
But despite that surface, Leo’s tough as nails, impatient at watching civilians like orphanage director (and resistance leader) Sofiya (Emily Beecham) caught in the middle and ready to take more direct action against Koval than his superiors support. The situation is fraught since Koval is near to acquiring access to the launch codes for Soviet-era nuclear missiles still in Ukrainian silos.
So Leo and Harp will go “outside the wire,” beyond the permitted boundaries, during the first mission Harp accompanies the captain on—an ostensibly humanitarian vaccine delivery. In a series of confrontations they extract information about Koval’s whereabouts from his confederates, and eventually gain control of the launch codes—in the process teaching Harp about the real human cost of the drone strikes he has previously only thought about in abstract, remote terms.
That leads to some twists in the final act, however, as questions are raised about the tendency of an entrenched military establishment to perpetuate wars rather than ending them and the promise (or danger) of advanced A.I. to act in unexpected ways. These are intriguing issues, but unfortunately the script addresses them in a way designed to allow for some empty pyrotechnics rather than to stimulate serious thought about them.
The narrative blandness is matched by the uninteresting visual palette—various shades of grey—crafted by production designer Kevin Phipps and cinematographer Michael Bonvillain. Editor Rickard Krantz and composer Lorne Balfe add some zest to the action scenes that Håfström, his stunt coordinators and effects team have contrived, but the expository material generates little tension or suspense, and the director elicits surprisingly perfunctory performances from Mackie and Idris, while encouraging Asbaek to chew the scenery as contrast. Beecham merely glowers, and the remainder of the supporting cast is no more than adequate.
One’s left with the feeling that had screenwriters Rob Yescombe and Rowan Athale been encouraged to develop their script in a more imaginative fashion and Håfström had drawn subtler work his stars, “Outside the Wire” could have been genuinely provocative. As it is, though, the result is just an average sci-fi action movie with a lot less on its mind than it might have had.