“King Kong ain’t got shit on me!” boasts Denzel Washington’s corrupt cop toward the end of Training Day. That wasn’t actually true, but it apparently sparked a high-concept idea in someone’s mind, since Outside The Wire answers the unasked question, “Say, what if a callow rookie got partnered with the Terminator?” Set in 2036, the film imagines a vague Eastern European civil war (let’s not potentially anger anyone by naming actual countries!) in which the United States plays an equally unspecified peacekeeping role. After disobeying a direct order—firing a missile despite being told to stand down—drone pilot Thomas Harp (Damson Idris) gets reassigned to combat duty, reporting to one Captain Leo (Anthony Mackie). Leo initially comes across as a standard-issue military badass, but Harp’s jaw hits the ground when his superior removes his shirt in the locker room to reveal a translucent torso packed with chips and wires. Turns out Leo is a heavily classified “fourth generation biotech” prototype, human in appearance but programmed to make decisions based purely upon utility. In Harp, who sacrificed two U.S. soldiers via a strike that may have saved 38 others, Leo believe he’s found the ideal subordinate for a particularly dangerous mission.
The nature of that mission gets revealed bit by bit over the course of two fairly monotonous hours, during which Harp predictably discovers that war looks quite different on the ground than it did from the safety and comfort of a trailer in Nevada, thousands of miles away. Those fuzzy shapes on his monitor were real people, and now he’s one of them. Interspersed among the blunt moralism are battle sequences that, while passably exciting, mostly serve to illustrate just how ludicrously superhuman the average action-movie hero is. Despite taking place just 15 years from now, Outside The Wire features robot soldiers that resemble Robocop’s ED-209 crossed with the Battlestar Galactica reboot’s non-humanoid Cylons. Oddly, though, the film opts to make Leo only perhaps 15% stronger, faster, and tougher than everyone else on screen… which may be realistic, but also means that he performs pretty much the same amazing physical feats that we’ve seen a zillion times before, from the likes of John Wick and Jason Bourne. The movie’s single coolest moment involves a minor character (played by Emily Beecham, star of Little Joe) who somehow disarms and beats up a dude using only her coat, but is not subsequently revealed to likewise be a robot.
Mackie’s performance, for better and worse, is anything but robotic. He plays more or less the same charismatic wiseacre he usually does, interpreting Leo as a machine that’s every bit as uniquely expressive as is any human being. That injects some welcome levity into what’s generally a flat, dour adventure, directed by Sweden’s Mikael Håfström with little of the old-school verve that he brought to Escape Plan. Part of the problem is that Outside The Wire, like every movie about a drone pilot, feels compelled to punish the concept of warfare by remote control; without getting into spoiler territory, let’s just say that this impulse fits less than comfortably with the third-act revelation of Leo’s true motives, clumsily grafting an ethical dilemma onto an otherwise straightforward morality play.
What’s more, screenwriters Rowan Athale and Rob Yescombe get unforgivably lazy at times—Harp’s only on hand to save the day at the end, for example, because someone with every reason to kill him (and whom we’ve previously seen casually execute a perceived traitor to the cause) inexplicably allows him to just walk away. This is the kind of half-assed film in which Leo, reciting Harp’s credentials from memory, notes that his protégé has logged 56,000 flight hours, and apparently nobody, whether in the script phase or on set or over months of post-production, thought to calculate that this would require flying eight hours a day, every day, for more than 19 years. (Damson Idris is 29 years old.) Like many Netflix productions, Outside The Wire assumes you’re barely paying attention.