Movies about drone warfare pilots tend to zero in on similar targets — killing enemies on a video screen is far removed from taking a life on the ground and in person, and the collateral damage is untenable. Good Kill (2014) and Drone (2017) both show pilots discovering those truths and facing the film’s ultimate moral quandary regarding whether or not drone strikes are a valid tool in war. Netflix’s latest original film, Outside the Wire, tackles the topic with an approach aimed more towards entertainment than deep thought, but it also takes a far braver stand by putting its foot down and insisting that drone warfare is absolutely bad except when it’s pretty darn good.
It’s 2036, the near future, and a civil war in Eastern Europe has left the region in violent disarray. U.S. forces work as peacekeepers by bombing targets remotely from hundreds of miles away, but drone pilot Thomas Harp (Damson Idris) crosses a line when he disobeys a direct order. His action leaves two Marines dead but may have saved an additional thirty-eight, and while it lands him in hot water it also catches the eye of Captain Leo (Anthony Mackie) who subsequently recruits him for a mission of his own. Harp is dropped into a boots on the ground mission to stop a nuclear launch, and it’s an eye-opening adventure for him as he sees both the collateral damage caused by drone strikes and the callousness that goes into their authorization. Oh, and Leo is a fourth-generation android.
Outside the Wire pretends to have a viewpoint but ultimately has anything but, and instead it delivers minor action thrills alongside its muddled themes. Director Mikael Håfström (Shanghai, 2010) does solid enough work here with action sequences captured from within the carnage and sequences that manage thrills and the occasional cool beat, but the script by Rowan Athale and Rob Yescombe isn’t nearly as focused.
Harp’s initial decision to launch a Hellfire missile against a target knowing it would also kill US servicemen is initially presented as a bad call, but he’s redeemed. His awakening as to the collateral damage caused by them is fierce, but he shakes that off. His introduction to the first-hand terror of combat is daunting, but he, well okay, he never really gets better at that. Harp is a character who ultimately has no arc — he’s a cocky “pilot” who’s pro drone strikes, and nearly two hours later that’s pretty much unchanged.
As dull as Harp is as a character, he remains Outside the Wire‘s focus despite the film’s dappling of more interesting ideas and characters throughout. A crime lord is presented as something of a false focus, but he amounts to nothing, and while the presence of robotic soldiers called Gumps is important enough to point out in an opening text scrawl they’re barely window dressing throughout the film. A third-act shift in narrative only works to negate the film’s ideas even further before ending things on the falsest of notes.
Mackie’s android soldier is nearly as empty a construct. His secret is limited only to Harp and higher ups, and while his methods are atypical to the other soldiers — he actually communicates and tries to build relationships with potential enemies in the field, so radical! — he garners respect due to his rank and results. Leo has off-book plans fueled by his own conflicted thoughts, though, but as with the issues surrounding drone strikes, the film is incapable of dealing with the themes that arise from them.
For all of that, Outside the Wire is an action movie, and on that front it succeeds well enough. Once Harp is dropped amid ground forces viewers are gifted with a handful of intense battle sequences and gun fights. Mackie also gets to unleash some fight skills, and while they’re aided in major ways through editing and f/x they’re still fun stuff. Sofiya (Emily Beecham), the head of the resistance and yet another interesting character the film has no time for, also manages a pretty nifty takedown using nothing but her coat.
Action movies aren’t typically known for their serious concerns and questions, so perhaps Outside the Wire deserves credit for raising them here, but it’s all for naught. The film loses interest in answers as quickly as real-world military figures forget about collateral casualties. Instead the focus is on a fairly bland character moving ineffectually through the story en route to the hilarious conclusion that “humans can do better.” But hey, the action is pretty good.