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Non-Review Review: Outside the Wire

Outside the Wire often feels like Netflix resurrected Cannon Films, and tasked them with remaking Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Training Day, without any constraints in terms of logic or internal consistency.

Outside the Wire is a bad film, but it is a bad film in somewhat interesting ways. This is not the dull lifeless quality of Wild Mountain Thyme. It is instead the gonzo “throw everything at the wall, regardless of how it fits together” energy of a film like Serenity or Book of Henry. It is a film that makes a number of bizarre choices that often seem to confusingly double back on one another, to the point that any review of the film inevitably comes across as a deranged play-by-play rather than coherent criticism.

“You’re a droid, and I’m a ‘noid.”

Outside the Wire is set in Eastern Europe in the distant future of 2037, as a new Cold War brews between Russia and the United States, raging as a proxy war in the Ukraine. (It perhaps says something about the state of current politics that this reference feels very dated.) Lieutenant Thomas Harp is a drone pilot. During a routine assignment, he breaks the chain of command and fires a missile that kills two servicemen. As a penalty, Harp is assigned to active duty on the frontier.

This is a fairly standard set-up. It recalls movies that meditate on the morality of drone warfare, like Good Kill or Eye in the Sky. Indeed, as Harp arrives on site, the commanding officer outlines the brutal cynicism of this punishment. “You’re here because somebody deemed the dollar value of your training to be higher than the lives of those two men. If you survive, air force keeps a pilot. If you die, you’re a cautionary tale to all the other fly-by-wire assholes.” The stakes are grounded, logical. The moral at play is clear. Harp is going to learn what war is really like.

Robot Wars.

Then, in the space of three minutes, Harp is assigned to work with an officer named “Leo.” Leo is an oddity. “He’s not like us,” the commanding officer warns. Leo works alone in a large office, filled with records. He listens to vinyl music. He types on an analogue keyboard. Within minutes of arriving, Leo has already conscripted Harp on a covert mission behind enemy lines. It initially seems like Leo is planning to deliver a set of vaccines to a local children’s hospital. “So you’re hearts and minds, sir?” Harp asks. Leo replies, “Yes, I’m hearts and minds. Ostensibly.”

It turns out that the vaccine run that Harp has been assigned moments after arriving to his first active deployment is actually a clandestine strike mission to take out local war lord Victor Koval. Koval is plotting to take control of the Ukrainian nuclear arsenal, and Leo is committed to stopping that from happening. Leo walks Harp through an elaborate exposition machine, involving photo plays and interactive maps. There’s a lot of elaborate detail, but the mission is clear. This is a “save the world” buddy movie.

And then Leo takes off his shirt, and reveals that he is android. All of this is twenty minutes into the film.

Of course, all of this happens within the first twenty minutes of the movie. And all of this is just the basis for the plot. Harp is effectively a rookie who finds his first combat deployment involves being partnered with an artificial intelligence that has committed itself to hunting down a warlord with the nuclear arsenal of a small country. However, there’s a weird inelegance of that plot evolution, with Outside the Wire basically cycling through three or four different films before settling on the film that it wants to be.

Outside the Wire is nonsense. However, it is needlessly convoluted nonsense. The film is insanely over-elaborate on things that don’t matter, such as Leo’s insanely detailed pitch for their mission complete with archive and newsreel footage, and incredibly unfocused on the things that do matter, like basic characterisation or internal consistency. Outside the Wire is a film that has Leo explain to Harp why he was modelled as an African American serviceman rather than a white man, but never stops to consider how surreal Leo’s explanation for that actually is.

Actual line of dialogue from Outside the Wire, when Anthony Mackie removes his shirt and reveals he’s an android: “I’m giving you sixty seconds to deal with it.”
This is more time than the movie gives its audience.

The movie obviously wants to riff on something like Training Day, with a central tension existing between Harp’s inexperienced field operative and Leo’s unstoppable killing machine. Much of the tension in Outside the Wire derives from the extent to which Harp can or should trust Leo. However, because the film so consistently and so immediately demonstrates Leo’s unreliability, there is not much tension to be mined from these set-ups.

Repeatedly over the course of Outside the Wire, Leo suggests some arbitrary logical paradox that shapes or defines his behaviour as an android – that there are things that he can or cannot do and that Harp exists in relation to those rules. In a smarter film, these dilemmas would be a source of anxiety and insight, but Outside the Wire inevitably treats them as cheap “gotcha!” moments. Leo frequently raises potential obstacles that he might face in pursuing his objective, only to just as quickly explain that he has already outwitted those potential hurdles.

Gears of war.

Leo is not programmed according to any Asimovian logic. He operates according to the logic of eighties action movies. When Harp defines Koval as “a mad man with nukes”, Leo is quick to correct him that Koval is “a crazy terrorist with nukes.” Leo doesn’t speak in the sort of arch language associated with cinema synthoids, he instead trades in easy clichés. “Feeling’s all I got,” he warns Harp at one point. Later, he offers trite philosophy, “War is ugly. Sometimes you gotta get a bit dirty to see any real change.”

This sense of Outside the Wire as a gonzo eighties or nineties throwback is reinforced by the movie’s Eastern European setting. Despite the emphasis on drone warfare, Outside the Wire feels more like one of the thrillers that emerged towards the end or in the aftermath of the Cold War, eschewing the moral ambiguity of the Middle East for the certitude of Eastern Europe. There are, of course, enough topical pointers to contextualise the film in relation to the Russian occupation of Crimea, but this story about local warlord seizing nukes feels like it predates the War on Terror.

I’m a little disappointed that Josh Gad wasn’t cast opposite Anthony Mackie, so we could enjoy this Falcon and the Snowman reboot.

Outside the Wire may not know exactly what it is doing or saying, but it seems to understand through imitation the language of the films that it is aping. Repeatedly, Leo mocks Harp about Harp’s fiancée, who is waiting for the drone pilot back home. At one point during a car ride, Leo even snatches a picture of the young woman and mocks the affectionate nickname scrawled on the back. It’s the logic of an old buddy cop movie, the cynical veteran mocking the inexperienced newcomer. Except this time, the cynical veteran is an android that may or may not be unstable.

Outside the Wire certainly has a collection of weird hooks, but it structures them in an absurdly conventional way. Talking about Harp’s fiancée, Leo anchors the stakes with a stern warning, “What I do know is that there won’t be a pretty little wedding in Palm Springs, unless you’re wearing Factor 500 UV Protection.” It’s a pretty direct riff on Sarah Connor’s warning about the dangers of nuclear apocalypse in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, that “anybody not wearing two-million sunblock is gonna have a bad day.”

“No, Euron Greyjoy.”

Indeed, there are times when Outside the Wire feels like an exercise in machine learning, as if an artificial intelligence had been programmed to recreate Training Day and Terminator 2: Judgment Day in the style of a much more disposable eighties action movie, with a much higher budget than usually afforded these B-movies, but with about as much internal consistency. Outside the Wire is a movie where things tend to just happen because they make for more exciting set pieces or because they extend the movie to an alotted runtime, rather than because they make sense.

This is perhaps most obvious with the supporting character Sofiya. Despite the fact that Leo is an unstoppable killing machine, it’s actually the all-to-human Sofiya who gets some of the movie’s most impressive actions beats; whether casually executing traitors or improvising her out coat as a weapon. “Ha!” gasps Harp, in case the audience is unsure what to make of the scene. “Damn!” However, Sofiya is just as inconsistently written as Leo, capable of being incredibly ruthless when a scene needs a jolt but surprisingly compassionate when the film needs a character spared.

General Disapproval.

A better movie wed these ideas to themes, asking the question of whether humans like Sofiya are any more or less unstable than artificial intelligences like Leo. They might explore the question of what it means to ask a cybernetic intelligence to process an environment as fundamentally insane and irrational as warfare. Instead, Outside the Wire occasionally clumsy gestures at the idea of detachment and emotion as they relate to combat, but never with any real consistency or focus.

Somehow, this incredibly generic and formulaic approach, lacking any consistency in character or theme, somehow works alongside the movie’s own gonzo premise. Outside the Wire is a movie that heaps one insane development on top of another with no hesitation or qualification, to the point that it is occasionally numbing. The film manages to be both entirely predictable because things happen according to the logic of an eighties action movie, and somehow slightly surreal because the characters and story around that are distinct enough to be an awkward fit.

Jeep cover.

None of this really works. Anthony Mackie seems to be enjoying playing Leo, which is a reasonable response when an actor is given a part that amounts to “what if Denzel Washington from Training Day was also Arnold Schwarzenegger from Terminator 2: Judgment Day?” Some of that infection carries over, even if it can’t carry the film itself. One of the central questions of Outside the Wire is whether Leo is convincing enough to pass a human, but it’s an impossible question to answer in a movie where nobody is anything more than an action movie cliché.

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