Saturday, May 18, 2024

‘Outside the Wire’ Gets Lost in Worldbuilding

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Outside the Wire is a movie that, despite its title, stays deep within the realm of familiarity. The film is entertaining, and the charm and talent of its stars help get us past the rough patches. This may not sound like a ringing endorsement but this is because the movie is aggressively fine.

Mikael Hafstrom’s film resembles at times like one of those old action flicks from the 80s or 90s. Outside the Wire has a familiarity to it that lends the film a certain charm. The charm is helpful because the script begins to cave in on itself and the direction is helpless to do anything but sit and watch.

Outside the Wire feels, truthfully, like a two-hour television pilot. The script by Rob Yescombe and Rowan Athale does a lot of world-building and then drops it all for the last thirty minutes of the film. Much of the movie is scene after scene of worldbuilding only to get to the end and realize we’ve left that world behind for a new one.

Hafstrom, to his credit, has a wonderful flair for visually summing up a character. Upon first meeting the drone pilot, Lt. Thomas Harp (Damson Idris) Hafstrom cuts between the chaotic firefight on the ground to Harp calmly eating gummy worms as he watches it unfold on his monitor from the safety of a few thousand miles. 

This is the not so far off future; 2034 to be precise. A violent civil war has broken out in Eastern Europe, the film tells us in an opening title crawl. The United States is there as peacekeepers, patrolling the “lawless frontier”. We then learn of Viktor Koval (Pilou Asbaek), a ruthless warlord who is more ghost than man, as few have ever come into contact with him.

After disobeying a direct order and killing two fellow officers, Harp is disciplined and transferred to a Ukrainian base, Camp Nathaniel, under Captain Leo (Anthony Mackie). Once a drone pilot, Harp is now forced to be on the ground in the thick of it serving beside robotic soldiers known as Gumps. 

Outside the Wire spends a lot of time setting up the Gumps but ultimately does nothing of real interest or dramatic value with them. They exist, I suppose, it’s to make Leo more believable. Leo is a BioTech robot. For all the science-fiction elements in Hafstrom’s movie, he and the script seem almost annoyed by their existence.

Hafstrom is more interested in the action side of things. But, while the action scenes are well done, they often feel like cut scenes from a video game. They are efficient but fail to do anything but to show action without making us feel the action. The scenes are utilitarian, see the explosion, this is a war, next scene.

Michael Bonvillain shot Outside the Wire and avoids excessive use of handheld camera work. At times Bonvillain and Hafstrom create some wonderful moments of beauty using bright lights in the background giving scenes an almost ethereal feel. SAdly, much of the action and the movie overall, is shot with an eye for television.

Although there is one action scene in which Mackey’s Leo throws a Ukrainian flag like it’s a javelin right into an enemy soldier’s chest. It’s one of the few over the top action moments the movie allows itself. It was a sight to behold as all that was missing was Leo firing off a one-liner before swaggering offscreen.

Therein lies another problem with the movie. While Outside the Wire is entertaining, it is rarely ever fun. Underneath everything, we can feel a sense of play dying to get out but it is smothered by the straight-faced seriousness of everything else.

Yescombe and Athale go back and forth between clever observations and head-shaking immaturity. After Harp first arrives at the base, Leo gives him a Non Disclosure to sign. “Here’s your NDA. Sign it or you could read all 90 pages.” Harp shakes his head and quickly signs the NDA. 

But later on, as Leo is trying to get Harp to focus he tries talking to him about his wife. Harp says he’s not married but he’s engaged. Leo nods and adds he doesn’t want him thinking about her, “Playing ‘Put the Beef in my Taco’, with her pilates instructor.”

These two moments perfectly illustrate the problem with Outside the Wire. The core of the story is akin to the low-budget blow ‘em up shoot ’em up action flicks of the past. But Hafstrom and the writers aren’t just playing it safe, they are playing it deathly seriously.

The bad guy, Koval is more a McGuffin than a villain. He exists so the heroes have something to go after. A lynchpin for the world that Hafstrom and the writers have built. Rarely seen but often talked about, he has no real character traits or even a mythos other than the timbre in a character’s voice when they say his name. He is a Kaiser Soyze without the heft or mythos.

The acting is top-notch, however. It is Mackey and Idris who spend most of the time on film and they use that time wisely. They share a charisma that makes Outside the Wire so much bearable than it might have been.  

Mackey’s Leo seems to be having more fun with his character than the film itself. Layered and charismatic he plays Leo like a man with a gregarious cynicism that is captivating and draws us in. He’s the type of character that the more honest he is the more deceitful he is being.

Idris’s Harp is the emotional core of the film. His presence helps stabilize the movie when it starts to go off the rails. A good thing too, because the big reveal that takes place about halfway through is riding on some shaky screenwriting rails. 

It’s an instance of writing in which it sounds more clever than it really is and Outside the Wire just barely pulls it off because of Idris and Macky’s performances. Hafstrom keeps a steady hand and keeps the moment grounded. I did roll my eyes, but it was not the kind of eye-roll that would sink a film.

However, the last thirty minutes pushes whatever goodwill I had for Outside the Wire to its limit. The finale takes place at a missile silo where a nuke has been activated and aimed at the United States. The army has called in a drone strike and Harp has just a few precious minutes to get far enough away so that when they blow up the nuclear missile he’s not around.

I have to say I smiled seeing Harp running away, holding his side with just a minute left on the clock. The massive explosion that followed was satisfying. But to see Harp a scant few seconds later safely driving away in a car was almost nostalgic for when that was a common occurrence in movies. Moments like that are part of the charm of Outside the Wire.

For all its modern conceits it’s the little nods to old-school action flicks that make Outside the Wire entertaining as it is. The problem is as it draws to the close, the movie doesn’t feel as if it’s over. It feels as if we expect to see Harp drive off into the sunset, off to find his next mission. Instead, we see him returning to base, his commander telling him he’s going home. 

Outside the Wire has a throughline of a plot but every stop along the way feels like a setup to something else and is never really resolved. A forever war that, by the end, still a forever war, the only accomplishment being that we didn’t nuke the US. Which, I suppose, as movies go, isn’t nothing. 

Image courtesy of Netflix

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