“Outside the Wire” opens with a full-on action scene. Robot soldiers fight alongside human ones — or maybe against them. It’s hard to tell. Bullets fly. Tough guys in helmets crouch behind concrete barriers. Two men are hit, and their commanding officer makes plans to pull them to safety, while half a world away, in the middle of the Nevada desert, a hot shot named Harp (“Snowfall” star Damson Idris) eats gummy bears and takes control of the situation. Disobeying a direct order, he launches a drone strike, killing two and saving the other 38. In the next scene, he is court-martialed and sent to the demilitarized zone for a taste of combat.
So begins the latest Netflix action movie, which I wager will be seen by more eyeballs than took in “Tenet” on the big screen last year. They will watch because it stars Anthony Mackie as a android super-trooper, and because there’s not much else new to consume in the way of movies, but also because the movie has been front-loaded with this intense but almost nonsensical set-piece.
There was a time when movies built at a reasonable speed, drawing audiences in gradually, like some kind of seduction (plus, some filmmakers realized, a fair portion of the audience might be running late and miss the beginning). But Netflix doesn’t work like that. Its movies have to grab you from the opening seconds, and anytime the energy dips, there’s a chance you could leave the room, or back out and pick something else to watch. I still marvel that people sat through “Roma” after that four-minute black-and-white opening shot of soapy water swirling in a Mexico City driveway (and I suspect most people didn’t).
“Outside the Wire” plays like Netflix’s version of “Gemini Man.” It doesn’t star Will Smith (although the streamer got him to do “Bright,” so it could have), and it wasn’t directed by Ang Lee (but rather Swedish filmmaker Mikael Håfström, who helmed the atmospheric hotel-horror movie “1408”), so the budget’s a lot smaller and so is the ambition. But the plot’s actually pretty similar and the movie takes itself every bit as seriously about how much the world has to fear military technology — and especially the idea of cyborg/clone/robot soldiers. This is not something that keeps me up at night, but screenwriters Rowan Athale and Rob Yescombe seem very, very worried about it. So much so that the whole business of barely-old-enough-to-vote joystick jockeys remote-controlling drone strikes from Nevada hardly registers as problematic.
After Harp fires that missile that kills two Americans, he’s packed up and assigned to Leo (Mackie), who takes off his shirt to reveal an intricate high-tech armature. Normally, when an actor like Mackie takes off his shirt, it’s to offer audiences a gratuitous look at his well-sculpted bare chest (even straight bros appreciate a good gun show), but the Netflix algorithm — the one that I secretly believe to be dictating the ingredients of movies like “Project Power” and “The Old Guard” — seems to have glitched on that count. The shirtless shot is all in service of exposition, to let Harp and audiences know that Leo is not human. Or, as Leo puts it, “I’m special enough for both of us.”
I’ll spare you a full-blown synopsis, but suffice to say, Leo has hand-selected Harp to accompany him on a high-intensity mission involving a bad guy named Viktor Koval (“Game of Thrones” vet Pilou Asbæk), described as “the terror of the Balkans.” More drone strikes are involved, plus some nuclear codes and a scheme to blow up a mainland American target, all of it reliably punctuated at regular intervals by action scenes in which Leo and Harp take on increasingly Slavic-looking terrorists in ever-grungier Hungarian locations. When not fighting these tough guys, they engage in fairly high-minded (but dumbed-down) philosophical debates about “the greater good.” And finally, after bonding for most of the movie, they wind up fighting one another.
Back when “Gemini Man” came out, there was a huge push for people to watch the film in theaters — and good reason for it too, what with Lee’s high-frame-rate gimmick — but here, it’s just the opposite: “Outside the Wire” was always designed for home viewing, and you can tell by the small-screen-quality visual effects.
This is another signature of Netflix originals, which settle for “good enough”-grade post-production work even on the company’s biggest projects (the bad CGI on last year’s “Extraction” and “Da 5 Bloods” come to mind). And why not? These movies weren’t meant to be seen on the big screen so that’s probably the right call, even if the results look hokey. Thus, Netflix can spend that money on other movies, rather than investing a fortune on soon-to-be-obsolete digital effects the way studio tentpoles do.
Here, the aim is to hook viewers with that first burst of incoherent action, after which director Håfström focuses on staging more directly engaging firefights. As luck would have it, there’s one — between Leo and Koval — that rivals “John Wick” movies in its choreography. But apart from his programming, there’s little that sets Leo apart from your average action hero. And that, of course, is the problem with nearly all of these Netflix movies in the end: They approximate, but seldom surpass, what they’re meant to replace.