Can an action film with a bold anti-war message also trade off the vicarious thrill of watching numerous bullet-strewn battle scenes? It’s an uneasy question whose answer depends on execution, whether the moral argument has space to pierce through the mayhem. The serviceable new Netflix action thriller Outside the Wire doesn’t make an entirely convincing case (its focus is more on firepower than brainpower) but even a messily handled big idea is at least something in a genre most often lacking in them, especially on a platform that churns out mindless guff on a weekly basis.
In the near future, Harp (Damson Idris), a US drone pilot, is helping to fight a war in eastern Europe aided by “Gumps”, military machines trained to destroy the enemy and protect human soldiers. During one difficult evening, Harp makes a controversial decision and the resulting carnage takes him from behind a screen to out on the field, partnered up with Leo (Anthony Mackie), a notorious android officer, to show him what war is really like. But Harp soon finds out that Leo has something else on his mind.
With a touch of Training Day, a smidgen of Eagle Eye, a dash of Eye in the Sky, a pinch of Ex Machina and an extra generous serving of all the Terminator films, Outside the Wire is losing every available award for originality, yet another Netflix creation born from its algorithmic cauldron, but taken on very basic low-stakes terms, it’s a competent enough January time-filler. Like many of the company’s wannabe blockbusters, on first glance it moves like it belongs at the multiplex, but it doesn’t take the quickest of viewers to spot that it’s just a few steps behind, a DTV action flick with a slightly bigger budget than the cheaper knockoffs it takes after. The director, Mikael Håfström (who enjoyed a brief run on the big screen with 1408, Derailed and The Rite), has just about enough experience to make it mostly work, motoring ahead with agility, aided immensely by his two leads.
Idris, a British actor whose affecting work in the immigration drama Farming remains an early career high point, acquits himself with confidence in his first major lead role, the sort of duck-to-water performance that should have Marvel and Star Wars honchos taking notice. Although one hopes his career doesn’t become too populated by action fodder, as has become the case with Mackie, who always seems just a little bit better than the material he ends up with. While roles in Half Nelson, The Hurt Locker and Detroit have shown us just how much Mackie can do, too often he’s stuck in mindless running and shooting mode in dross like Triple 9 and the remakes of Point Blank and Miss Bala or lost in the chaos of the Avengers franchise. He’s as good as ever in this but it feels like a sleepwalk in the park at this stage.
The ever-shifting dynamic between the pair holds our attention far more then the rather generic battle set pieces, Håfström content to make the film feel like a video game come to life. The blandness of the action, of which there’s quite a lot, perhaps works unintentionally in favour of the anti-war debate that starts to rage, showing us the repetitive pointlessness of it all. Sadly that doesn’t seem to be the objective here and so instead, the fetishistic sea of bullets that drowns the film works against any more noble discourse. There’s a more interesting film buried here and it’s the small nuggets of debate about the military and artificial intelligence that keep us going through the bloated, almost two-hour runtime.
Giving Outside the Wire credit for gently broaching weightier subjects than the average Netflix action film is the faintest of praises, but with two magnetic performances (and strong work from the Cannes best actress winner Emily Beecham), it makes for an acceptable kick-off to what is poised to be the streamer’s biggest year yet. Let’s just hope it gets better than this.