Triple Frontier is very much of a piece with J.C Chandor's previous three films: the Wall Street drama Margin Call (2011), which ruthlessly dramatized the 2008 global financial meltdown through the lens of a single fictional bank; the nearly wordless All Is Lost (2012), in which Robert Redford played a man struggling to survive alone in the open ocean; and A Most Violent Year (2014), a morality tale about corruption set against the backdrop of New York City's violent winter of 1981. All of those films have at their core a conflicted protagonist struggling to survive, whether it be physically or fiscally or both, and with them Chandor has displayed a canny ability to switch genres while still maintaining an inherent fascination with the mechanics of human relationships, willpower, and self-delusion.
All of that is at play in Triple Frontier, which might otherwise be easily dismissed as a rote action thriller in which a quintet of former Special Forces soldiers rob a South American drug lord of millions of dollars. The fact that Chandor directed the film and co-wrote it with Mark Boal, the journalist-turned-screenwriter behind the Kathryn Bigelow films The Hurt Locker (2008), Zero Dark Thirty (2012), and Detroit (2017) would seem to suggest that there is much more beyond the obvious surface, and to some extent that's true (Bigelow was originally attached to direct back in 2010 with Tom Hanks and Johnny Depp). Triple Frontier is as much a film about desperation as it is about guns and explosions, although the former is often subsumed not so much by the latter, but by the film's cadre of generally uninteresting characters. Despite being played by an impressive roster of stars-Oscar Isaac (who also starred in A Most Violent Year, Ben Affleck, Charlie Hunnam, Pedro Pascal, and Garret Hedlund-the characters are all standard types who never cut much beneath the surface, which renders the suspense superficial, rather than emotional.
Oscar Isaac's Santiago "Pope" Garcia is the ringleader and instigator, the only member of the group who is still actively involved in military action, albeit as a gun-for-hire (we first see him helping a South American police force execute a massive and deadly raid). When he sees an opportunity to kill and then rob a major drug lord of the cash he is hoarding in a secret hideout deep in the jungle, he recruits his old military comrades, most of whom are now in the private sector: Affleck's Tom "Redfly" Davis is working (unsuccessfully) as a real estate agent; Hunnam's William "Ironhead" Miller gives pep talks to new military recruits; Pascal's Francisco "Catfish" Morales is a pilot who has recently lost his license for illicit activities; and Garrett Hedlund's Ben Miller is doing mixed martial arts in scummy arenas. Pope's argument, which slips in and around conventional notions of morality and the law, is that they are stealing money from a bad man and they are fundamentally good men who have been shorted by the system they served. Much is made about how soldiers are used and discarded when they are no longer useful, and the plan they hatch is meant to be an equalizer-just rewards for a life spent putting themselves in harm's way.
Such moral murkiness is soon set aside in favor of more conventional genre thrills, as the heist hardly goes off without a hitch, and they find themselves fundamentally stranded in a hostile, foreign country trying to lug hundreds of pounds of cash in massive bags. Tensions, old and new, begin to escalate, and the proverbial "one last job" may be the one that sinks them (a theme of so many film noir, made someone new here by having it simultaneously be their first and last heist). Alas, there isn't much emotional investment in the generally unidimensional characters, so it is hard to get too worked up about their predicament. Chandor handles the action fluidly, and he makes the most of the dangerous locations and general sense of unease (the country in which the film takes place is never explicitly named, but the title refers to the area where Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil come together). Unfortunately, he can't hurdle the fact that the story rests on the shoulders of characters whose abstract positioning as men of virtue in a corrupt world is much more interesting than their flesh-and-blood reality.
Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Netflix
Overall Rating: (2.5)
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