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‘Outside the Wire’ offers so-so sci-fi

January 18, 2021
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Stop me if you’ve heard this one: In a relatively near future, a human and a robot or forced to team up with the fate of the world at stake, but not all is as it seems.

Sound familiar? Then you’re well-equipped for “Outside the Wire,” a new sci-fi action film coming your way via Netflix. Directed by Swedish filmmaker Mikael Hafstrom from a script co-written by Rowan Athale and Rob Yescombe, the film is an uneven mashup of familiar genre tropes that sports that unmistakable Netflix sheen.

Basically, if you’ve seen even one human/robot partnership movie, there aren’t likely to be many surprises for you here. “Outside the Wire” is essentially a collection of predictable plot points punctuated by action set pieces and lots of explosions, without even the headiness of ideas that make some of its spiritual predecessors conceptually engaging as well as viscerally.

The year is 2036. Hostilities in eastern Europe have led to an expansive Russian offensive in the region. The U.S. and other allies have embarked on a peacekeeping mission, one anchored by both human troops and robotic soldiers known as Gumps.

Thomas Harp (Damson Idris, TV’s “Snowfall”) is a drone pilot for the Air Force, providing air support for a mission into disputed territory. When the Marine forces are ambushed, Harp makes a judgment call in the moment to destroy a missile launcher – a decision that, while ensuring the survival of many, directly led to the death of two soldiers.

As punishment for disobeying a direct order, he is sent to Camp Nathanial, the Ukrainian base of operations for the U.S. military. For the first time, his own boots are going to be on the ground.

He’s placed under the command of Captain Leo (Anthony Mackie, “Synchronic”), an officer who is held in some suspicion by the other soldiers – particularly Colonel Eckhart (Michael Kelly, TV’s “The Comey Rule”), who warns Harp that Leo is not what he seems.

That turns out to be an understatement. Captain Leo is actually an advanced android, an AI robot soldier designed to be the next step in modern warfare. And he’s on a mission – specifically, a mission to keep notorious warlord Victor Koval (Pliou Asbaek, TV’s “Game of Thrones”) from getting his hands on the codes required to activate Ukraine’s dormant nuclear arsenal.

Harp is thrust into a type of warfare unlike any he’s ever experienced; he’s always watched the violence unfold at a distance, but now, he’s seeing the bloodshed from the front row. And as the mission progresses, he meets others – such as the mysterious Sofiya (Emily Beecham, TV’s “Into the Badlands”) – whose motivations for helping Leo in his mission are … murky.

As they move inexorably toward their goal, Harp begins to question not just the actions of others, but those of Leo, wondering just what his ostensible superior wants – assuming a machine is capable of wanting anything at all.

There are a few problems with “Outside the Wire,” but they mostly spring from one simple issue: there’s nothing new here. It’s all familiar, and not in a fun way. Equal parts middling “Terminator” sequel and off-brand “Training Day,” the film fails to take flight at every turn; seemingly every moment meant to soar lands with a thud.

And the story – such as it is – flounders. We occasionally get feints toward a more substantial story, but for the most part, the filmmakers are content to simply churn through the morass, blowing stuff up as they go. And it’s not just what is happening that is unclear, but why it is happening as well. I don’t need intricately realized plotting in my robot soldier movie, but a little coherence would go a long way.

Now, the folks at Netflix are no fools. Even considering the general dearth of character development and narrative engagement, there’s some entertainment value here, found mostly in the big action set pieces and a couple of really strong Mackie-driven fight scenes. It just isn’t enough to elevate the movie beyond a shoulder shrug. Again, it is forgivable for an action movie to use the narrative as little more than an excuse to get to the next shootout or brawl – it just has to be better than this.

It’s worth noting here that this movie does work when it starts flexing; the action and effects work are perfectly acceptable. There’s just not much else to look at whenever the dust settles.

I’m curious to see what direction Mackie takes from here. He’s got the MCU going, of course, but he’s been making some interesting choices apart from his work as the Falcon, showing a particular eye for sci-fi action – stuff like 2019’s “IO” and last year’s underrated time-travel thriller “Synchronic.” If he’s making the move to be a genre go-to, I approve – he’s even good here, in a film whose script does him few favors.

The rest of the cast is fine, if unmemorable. Idris is essentially a cipher as Harp – we get very little from him. That’s likely by design, but it doesn’t work; he kind of gets lost in the shuffle, which is tough to do as second lead. Kelly is a pro. Asbaek and Beecham hit their marks and say their lines, but there’s not much memorable there.

“Outside the Wire” is a fine time-killer if you’re a genre movie fan, but that’s about it. It is overlong and derivative, the kind of film from which it is easy to check out. Mackie is good and the action is solid, but that’s not nearly enough to get you where you want to be. To Netflix, I say … whatever the opposite of “domo arigato” is.

[2 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 18 January 2021 11:40

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