Dropping Friday on Netflix, Mikael Håfström’s “Outside the Wire” is a perfect example of a January movie, just good enough to pass the time, yet perhaps not worth remembering.
Amid many moments of typical futuristic sci-fi exposition and fights/explosions, however, there’s a pretty clever sub-theme about how smart technology can fool supposedly smarter humans.
If the movie simply was about giving up personal information by taking a quiz on Facebook, it wouldn’t be much fun. No, “Outside the Wire” is about stopping a maniac from launching still-active Russian nuclear missiles.
As it begins, in a dystopian future, Europe is a war zone, and hapless American soldiers have been sent to police the situation, along with new, fully robotic soldiers called “Gumps.”
Evil forces, the “Kraznys,” are sweeping across the land, taking over. Their leader is a near-mythological baddie called Victor Koval (Pilou Asbæk). A graffiti combination of a V and a K sprayed on crumbling buildings lets passerby know that this is his territory.
Meanwhile, Air Force Lt. Thomas Harp (Damson Idris) is an expert drone pilot stationed in Nevada, flying over the war zone, but without a day of combat experience. He disobeys a direct order and makes a tough call that saves 38 Marines, but kills two.
As punishment, he’s sent into the war zone he just blew up, where he must report to Capt. Leo (Anthony Mackie). Already things feel strange; Leo won’t let Harp speak until Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong have finished warbling the last notes of “Stars Fell on Alabama.”
Then, before Harp can even put his stuff down, they’re off. First, it looks like they’re going to be heading “outside the wire” (the uncontrolled area outside their safe compound) to deliver some cholera vaccine to orphans.
But really, they are going to pick up intel about where to find nuclear codes before Koval can.
Oh, and Leo is really an android, with a transparent torso. Blue electrical pulses can be seen powering his form. And power they do. Whenever anyone attacks, Leo springs into superb fighting form, like Bruce Lee and John Wick and all of the Avengers rolled into one.
There are many more layers to Leo’s story and to the mission. The incredulous Harp — along with the audience — is almost always just a half-step behind.
It’s too bad the movie didn’t make more of the fact that Harp has just arrived, likely without sleep, and has been forced into his first on-the-ground battles. The story could have been edgier and more off-kilter.
Certainly, “Outside the Wire” has some interesting themes, demonstrating how truth, identity and technology can become hopelessly scrambled. Yet its mix of theme, story and action never feels balanced.
It’s telling that one of the two screenwriters, Rob Yescombe, comes from video games (he wrote a “Rambo” game); the movie seems structured like a game.
Director Håfström’s action scenes are perhaps a half-beat too quick, rendering the exquisite choreography a bit fragmented.
Hailing from Sweden, Håfström earned an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film 2003’s “Evil.” (He lost to “The Barbarian Invasions”). Subsequently, he directed the compact, terrifying horror movie “1408” and the hit guilty pleasure “Escape Plan.” But he has fallen more than he has flown. Here he does both.
On the downside, an opening crawl and dialogue in which characters explain their dystopian future and its minutiae to each other — an unfortunate staple of sci-fi — are eye-rollingly tiresome.
But that’s offset by the reliable Mackie, best known as Sam “Falcon” Wilson in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but also wide-ranging in “The Hurt Locker,” “Detroit,” “The Hate U Give,” “Real Steel,” ” 8 Mile” and “The Night Before.”
At one point, he tells Harp that, when he was built, his particular android face was chosen because it “makes people calm.” That feels right; Mackie manages a cool combo of command and vulnerability that makes us want to be his friend.
The way he cleverly withholds and doles out information and wisdom over the course of the story is almost hypnotic. “Maybe humans aren’t emotional enough,” he argues to Harp. Unfortunately, the same could be said for this movie.
Outside the Wire
Starring: Anthony Mackie, Damson Idris, Emily Beecham, Pilou Asbæk
Written by: Rowan Athale, Rob Yescombe
Directed by: Mikael Håfström
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes