It can be a disorienting experience watching an action movie try to make a political statement, sort of like watching Spinal Tap try to perform an opera about healthy gender dynamics. On the one hand, you want to encourage the effort. And on the other hand, you desperately want to tell them to stay in their lane, because the result could only be a mess.
Of course, there are examples of genre films that successfully melded allegory and/or satire into shoot-'em-ups, like Paul Verhoeven's RoboCop and Starship Troopers. But it takes a deft touch to pull off that kind of a trick without simultaneously glorifying violence, while making the message clear and convincing. Outside the Wire takes what feels like a smart starting point for a critique of dehumanized militarism, then fumbles it so badly that it's hard to justify the effort.
That starting point, in a story set in the year 2036, involves Lt. Thomas Harp (Damson Idris), an Air Force drone pilot who takes his job firing missiles into an Eastern European war zone from the safety of a Nevada military base casually enough that he snacks on Gummi Bears through his missions. After one of his decisions results in the death of two Marines, Harp is sent into a combat zone to learn a lesson about war on the ground. There he's assigned to Capt. Leo (Anthony Mackie) for a mission to gather intelligence about a warlord trying to acquire nuclear launch codes. And oh by the way, Capt. Leo is actually an android.
There's certainly not a lot of subtlety in the script, credited to Rowan Athale and video-game writing veteran Rob Yescombe. As we watch a scenario in which the U.S. military has already deployed additional robotic troops on top of their drone activity, it's clear that we're getting a cautionary tale about what happens when it becomes too easy to make life-and-death decisions when you yourself don't face any life-and-death consequences. The creation of Capt. Leo even involves some cynical awareness of how America is perceived around the world, with the notion that he was made to look like a Black man in order to appear less threatening to people in other countries. Harp's character journey—begun as Idris effectively conveys a scarily placid demeanor during the incident that inspires his punishment—finds him learning hard lessons in the value of individual human lives, rather than cold tactical calculations about the greater good.
That, however, proves to be a more complex philosophical notion than Outside the Wire ultimately knows what to do with. Without offering spoilers, the narrative takes a turn that feels somewhat predictable thanks to a long history of science-fiction tales about artificial intelligence—and that means there's going to have to be a lot of expository chatter in which we contemplate the essence of what it is to be human. None of that exposition is handled particularly gracefully, although Mackie's easy on-screen charm gives things a much-needed boost. If you end up with a bunch of scenes that flash back to earlier moments in an "oh, so that was what that meant," as director Mikael Håfstrom employs here, you've made it clear you don't really trust your audience to put the pieces together.
More problematic is the reality that Outside the Wire is too timid to embrace a full-on skewering of American foreign policy-by-force. This always feels like a movie made more for the audience that's going to dig the mayhem that ensues when the inhuman Capt. Leo makes short work of a bunch of militants, rather than the audience that honestly wants to contemplate the consequences of our perpetual war. As an action picture, it's sturdy enough, but the use of a "countdown to possible Armageddon" digital clock should have clued me in that it wasn't going to end on the only anti-heroic note that would have matched up with its pretenses at deep thoughts. Instead of offering a journey into moral grey areas that goes for the throat, this one can only manage a shoot-'em-up that goes to 11.