Combustible Celluloid
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With: Anthony Mackie, Damson Idris, Emily Beecham, Pilou Asbæk, Enzo Cilenti, Henry Garrett, Kristina, Michael Kelly
Written by: Rowan Athale & Rob Yescombe
Directed by: Mikael Håfström
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence and language throughout
Running Time: 114
Date: 01/15/2021

Outside the Wire (2021)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Android Paranoia

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Dropping Friday on Netflix, Mikael Håfström's Outside the Wire is a perfect example of a January movie, just good enough to pass the time, yet perhaps not worth remembering.

Amidst its many moments of typical futuristic sci-fi exposition and fights/explosions, however, we do get a pretty clever sub-theme about how smart technology can fool supposedly smarter humans.

But if the movie were only about giving up personal information by taking a quiz on Facebook, it wouldn't be much fun. No, Outside the Wire is about stopping a maniac from launching still-active Russian nuclear missiles.

As it begins, in a dystopian future, Europe is a war zone, and hapless American soldiers have been sent to police the situation, along with new, fully robotic soldiers called "Gumps."

Evil forces, the "Kraznys," are sweeping across the land, taking over. Their leader is a near-mythological baddie called Victor Koval (Pilou Asbæk). A graffitied combination of a "V" and a "K" sprayed on crumbling buildings lets passerby know that this is now his territory.

Meanwhile, Air Force Lieutenant Thomas Harp (Damson Idris) is an expert drone pilot stationed in Nevada, flying over the war zone, but without a day of actual combat experience. He disobeys a direct order and makes a tough call that saves 38 Marines, but kills two.

As punishment, he's sent directly into the war zone he just blew up. There, he must report to Captain Leo (Anthony Mackie). Already things feel strange; Leo won't let Harp speak until Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong have finished warbling the last notes of "Stars Fell on Alabama."

Then, before Harp can even put his stuff down, they're off. First, it looks like they're going to be heading "outside the wire" (i.e. the uncontrolled area outside their safe compound) to deliver some cholera vaccine to orphans.

But really, they are going to be picking up some intel about where to find nuclear codes before Koval can.

Oh, and Leo is really an android, with a transparent torso. Blue electrical pulses can be seen powering his form. And power they do. Whenever anyone attacks, Leo springs into superb fighting form, like Bruce Lee and John Wick and all of the Avengers rolled into one.

There are many more layers to Leo's story and to the mission. The incredulous Harp — along with the audience — is almost always just a half-step behind.

It's too bad the movie didn't make more of the fact that Harp has only just arrived, likely without sleep, and has been forced into his first on-the-ground battles. The story could have been a little edgier and more off-kilter.

Certainly, Outside the Wire has some interesting themes buried within, demonstrating how truth, identity, and technology can become hopelessly scrambled, but at the same time the mix of theme, story, and action never feels effectively balanced.

It's telling that one of the two screenwriters, Rob Yescombe, comes from video games (he wrote a Rambo game), as the movie seems structured that way.

Director Håfström's action scenes are perhaps a half-beat too quick, rendering the exquisite choreography just a bit fragmented.

Hailing from Sweden, Håfström once earned an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film for his 2003 movie Evil (he lost to The Barbarian Invasions).

Subsequently, he directed the compact, terrifying horror movie 1408 and the hit guilty pleasure Escape Plan. But he has fallen far more than he has flown; he manages both here.

On the downside, an opening crawl, and then reams of dialogue in which characters explain this particular dystopian future and its minutiae to each other — an unfortunate staple of the sci-fi genre — is eye-rollingly tiresome.

In the end, though, there's Mackie, one of our most reliable actors, best known as Sam "Falcon" Wilson in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but also in movies ranging from The Hurt Locker, Detroit, and The Hate U Give, to Real Steel, 8 Mile, and The Night Before.

At one point, he explains to Harp that, when he was built and his particular android face was chosen because it "makes people calm." That feels right. Mackie manages a cool combo of command and vulnerability that makes us want to be his friend.

The way he coolly withholds and cleverly doles out information and wisdom over the course of the story is almost hypnotic. "Maybe humans aren't emotional enough," he argues to Harp during one exchange. Unfortunately, the same could be said for this movie.

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