Film

Review: Seeking Humanity in AI Soldiers, Outside the Wire Rarely Finds It

After spending years standing alongside a super-soldier as Falcon in a bunch of Marvel movies, it seems like Anthony Mackie wanted to play one himself in Outside the Wire, the latest from director Mikael Håfström (1408, Escape Plan). Set about 15 years in the future, the movie exists in a world where both America and Russia have supplemented their fighting troops and drones with robot soldiers called Gumps (presumably because they are both dumb and effective).

Outside the Wire

Image Credit ​Jonathan Prime​/NETFLIX ​© ​2020

With that as the landscape for the military-based action piece, we are introduced to Lt. Thomas Harp (Damson Idris, FX’s “Snowfall”), a drone pilot who disobeys a direct order, resulting in the deaths of two American soldiers (many seem to ignore that he saved nearly 40 others in the process). Rather than being court-martialed or being given a meaningless post, Harp is assigned to work alongside Capt. Leo (Mackie), a one-man secret detail in search of a mysterious warlord named Viktor Koval (Pilou Asbæk), whom he believes is attempting to acquire long-dormant Russian nuclear launch codes to use against the United States. Harp initially thinks he was assigned to this detail, but it turns out Leo hand-picked him because he showed he was capable of thinking outside the box and doing what makes logical sense rather than letting his emotions steer him. Oh, we also find out that Leo is a highly sophisticated, A.I.-enhanced android soldier who has incredible speed, strength, aim, you name it. But he’s got personality for days and has been designed to be good not only in combat but also in negotiating and earning the trust of his enemies.

The title Outside the Wire refers to Harp never having been in actual combat before, and it’s clear from the beginning that Leo is counting on Harp to be a little green on this mission so that he’ll do his job and not question his authority. But as Harp proves that he can adapt to combat situations as well, he does begin to wonder about certain choices Leo is making along the way. Without getting lost in the film’s unnecessarily complicated plot, it turns out Leo’s motives aren’t entirely on the up and up…or maybe they are but his route to getting there are too complicated to explain and he’d rather rely on Harp’s predictable nature to steer the course of events. In the end, Leo is like many movie A.I.s: he’s asked to find the best route to ending a war and deduces that the path needs to be littered with the bodies of those doing the fighting, collateral damage be damned. He’s basically Ultron, but better looking and with a velvety smooth voice.

The movie has some strong supporting work from Michael Kelly as Eckhart, the only other commanding officer who knows the truth about Leo being an android. He gets a chance to shine in the final act as he steers Harp on his final mission to stop Leo. Also on hand is Emily Beecham as Sofiya, a contact of Leo’s in the former Soviet state where most of the action takes place. Harp has to figure out whether she is also a fellow pawn in Leo’s mission or if she’s colluding with him to achieve his possible nightmare scenario. Director Håfström has a real eye for both action and science-fiction, and he blends the two seamlessly in the real-world backdrop of war, making it clear he believes that ultimately all technological advances will be steered into making weapons of some sort.

I’m fairly certain that the goal of both the film and Leo is to draw out the humanity in Harp by showing him that his emotionless drone strikes have a real human cost, making it something of an antiwar movie. But Outside the Wire is almost too slick and mission-focused to quite make that happen, even though Idris is a terrific actor and does his best to convey that Harp is growing as a person by expanding his worldview. I’m not sure the film achieves its own missions, but I can never be too disappointed at yet another chance to watch Mackie take charge in some truly brutal and bloody action sequences. The film’s success may depend entirely on your expectations of what you want to get out of it. I wanted something a little more substantial, and it didn’t quite get there.

The film begins streaming January 15 on Netflix.

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