Have you ever watched “Training Day” and wondered how cool it would be if, 15 minutes into the movie, Denzel Washington took off his shirt to reveal that he was actually a semi-translucent android super-soldier with the strength of a Terminator and the emotional range of a B-team Avenger? Of course you have — you’re only human. But screenwriters Rowan Athale and Rob Yescombe took it upon themselves to actually make that dream a reality, and the result of their efforts is a high-concept slab of “Netflix movie of the week” sci-fi that wrestles with some big questions about the future of modern warfare via a conceit that borders dangerously close to “Chappie.”
It’s rare to see something that dares to perform an entire Cirque du Soleil routine on the narrow tightrope between smart and silly; rare enough that it’s tempting to forgive “Outside the Wire” for how frantically it struggles to retain its balance. The film’s paradoxical obsession with preserving the humanity of warfare is compelling enough to keep things moving even when everything around it feels bland and gray, and the po-faced goofiness of the whole endeavor — emboldened by Mikael Håfström’s (“Escape Plan”) resourceful direction — is consistent in a way that makes you want to focus on the movie’s pulpy extrapolation of Asimovian concepts instead of how it beats them into the ground.
You want to enjoy the evocative camera-head design of the robotic soldiers that bolster the American military in the movie’s vision of 2036, and overlook the fact that they’re referred to as “Gumps” (presumably because they’re dumb, subject to endless abuse, and always popping up at critical moments in history). You want to appreciate that mecha Anthony Mackie has found a role that makes good use of his programmatic charm, and overlook that scene where he likens human sex to “putting beef in a taco.”
The world’s most sophisticated android was apparently programmed by an intern at Barstool Sports. Perhaps another zero at the end of the movie’s budget or a sharper final draft of the script would have been enough to push “Outside the Wire” into more solid territory, but the gravity of its low-rent approach proves too intense for it to get off the ground.
“Snowfall” actor Damson Idris stars as Lt. Thomas Harp, a drone pilot who rains death on America’s enemies from the Nevada shipping container where he works some 8,000 miles away. Sometimes friendlies get in the way. The film opens with a dull and dreary prelude that finds Harp watching over a standoff in the conflict zone that has engulfed Central Europe; disobeying a direct order, our hero makes the call to drop a bomb that kills two American soldiers in order to save another 38. It’s the kind of math that never adds up, and even if Harp was right to pull the trigger, the distance between his actions and their consequences is enough for anyone in his position to feel like they’re just playing a video game.
So Harp is redeployed straight into the middle of the fight so that he can re-learn the value of human life (or what the army calls “authority of experience”). Irony of ironies: He’s assigned to partner with Leo (Mackie), a robot so convincing that only camp’s commanding officer is aware that he isn’t made out of flesh and bone. Together, this odd couple is going to venture out into the warzone beyond the base and stop an enigmatic madman named Viktor Koval (Pilou Asbæk) from launching Russia’s entire arsenal of dormant 20th century nuclear weapons. The mission goes FUBAR in a hurry, and our mismatched heroes are forced to negotiate all sorts of moral equivalencies as they make their way deeper into the generic ruins of CGI-swamped Budapest (the Gump effects look tactile and fantastic, but everything else feels like it’s only a half-step above a Snapchat filter).
In theory, Harp and Leo make for a compelling duo. The former is a human who thinks like a robot, and the latter is a robot who’s hung up on the heartbeat that he’ll never have. Despite Leo’s penchant for glitching from civil to “King Kong ain’t got nothing on me!” at a moment’s notice, he’s endearingly fond of life’s more analog pleasures. He loves books and maps and vinyl records, and he even has a soft spot for the British woman (“Little Joe” actress Emily Beecham) who runs an orphanage in the heart of the warzone; the rusted old robots that stand in her garden and play with the kids are an inspired touch that evokes the imagery of early Miyazaki films.
There’s a clever irony to the idea of a drone pilot being guided into a conflict area by someone who’s essentially a drone himself, and these two characters would be strong foils in a Kirk/Spock kind of way if not for the fact that every single one of their conversations boils down to Harp saying something insolent and Leo barking at him about how humans aren’t emotional enough to make sound decisions in a war — after all, it was human indifference that started the fighting. “Training Day” made it work through raw swagger and force of will, but that movie had Denzel Washington and a sunbaked Los Angeles at its disposal. “Outside the Wire” has Anthony Mackie coasting off his residual “Altered Carbon” vibes as he clenches down on every line of overcooked dialogue like he’s afraid of choking on them.
On the bright side, he’s an even more capable action star here than he’s been in any of his Marvel outings to date. The film’s action sequences tend to be short on motivation and long on shouting, but Mackie excels in a series of one-on-one fight scenes that let him flex Leo’s inhuman muscle. Viktor Koval is AWOL for far too long to be more than a McGuffin in this story, but his eventual standoff with Leo is a nice piece of combat. Elsewhere, otherwise generic firefights are redeemed by moments that reflect the need for humanity to clean up its own messes. One especially tense moment seems under control until the Gumps make the programmatic call to open fire, and Harp is forced to run for his life as civilians fall to the ground around him.
Still, the fact remains that humanity is our greatest weapon, and that removing it from the fight would only make the fighting worse. Leo may have been programmed to present some kind of middle ground as part of the military’s gradual move towards a purely artificial soldiers, but there’s some mystery as to what he wants out of the job — a mystery that unravels and reverses on itself time and again during the film’s ridiculous climax, all of which builds to a reveal that probably didn’t have to be quite as contrived as it seems when it ambushes us in the final minutes.
Resolving as an open-hearted plea towards maintaining the human face of war at a time when technology can increasingly do our dirty work for us, “Outside the Wire” puts its metal thumb on the scale to say that taking people out of combat is only going to make us that much more apathetic to the ones who remain; that the only cure for war is for people to truly be able to reckon with the horror of fighting one. The half-brained drudgery that Håfström’s delivers here only leaves you with the regret that this war wasn’t more fun to watch.
“Outside the Wire” is now streaming on Netflix.