Directed by J. C. Chandor
Starring Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund, Pedro Pascal
J. C. Chandor is one of those directors that should have a wider fan base by now. He has gone from strength to strength in the course of his first three features—the Wall Street crisis thriller Margin Call (2011), the survival-at-sea drama All Is Lost (2013), and the business-political corruption tragedy A Most Violent Year (2014)—showing a penchant for injecting Big Picture ideas into stories about men struggling to keep their heads above water. The only problem: None of those films made a dent in the box office, with all three grossing below $10 million in the American box office and barely making a ripple internationally. The time is ripe for J. C. Chandor to break out, and Triple Frontier, the story of five former Special Operations soldiers who reunite to rob a South American drug lord, should be the kind of star-studded, heart-in-your-throat, brain-on-full-throttle thriller to do just that.
At least that was the plan. Triple Frontier turns out to be one of those pedigreed vehicles that looks better on paper than it does in execution. Trailblazing director Kathryn Bigelow was initially attached to direct (she is still credited as a producer), and her collaborator on her biggest successes, screenwriter Mark Boal, is credited for the script alongside Chandor. But what has come out is neither artful rumination on thwarted masculinity nor adept heist thriller, but something that plummets into the nether regions between.
More from Netflix films:
At least Triple Frontier starts explosively enough: a private military adviser named Santiago “Pope” Garcia (Oscar Isaac, reuniting with his A Most Violent Year director) assists in a drug raid that goes spectacularly sideways. After the botched operation, Pope meets up with an informant named Yovanna (Adria Arjona) who asks for his help springing her brother from the clutches of the police in exchange for valuable insider info: the whereabouts of the drug lord they were after, a crime kingpin named Lorea (Reynaldo Gallegos), and the millions of dollars in drug money stashed in his jungle hacienda. Pope gets it into his head to circumvent the authorities and recruit his old military pals to stage a heist: retired tactician-turned-flailing-real estate agent Tom “Redfly” Davis (Ben Affleck, beefy and sullen); military PR shill William “Ironhead” Miller (Charlie Hunnam); Ironhead’s MMA fighter brother Ben (Garrett Hedlund, playing the only troupe member without a catchy nickname); and disgraced pilot Francisco “Catfish” Morales (Pedro Pascal).
The first hour, when Pope goes about his Ocean’s 11 quest to assemble his crew, is supposed to establish the castaway humanity of these men, the injustice of their sacrifice being rewarded with indifference. But this is exactly what it fails to do, because there are few characteristics that distinguish these men from each other—no visible drug habits, no PTSD (which is strange, since Ironhead says in the beginning that “the effects of committing extreme violence on other human beings are biological and physiological. That’s the price of being a warrior”), no signs of bruised psyches or tortured backstories. The only sign of an arc falls upon Ben Affleck’s character, who starts out a reluctant participant and then gradually reverts back to the mercenary he must have been.
It’s the lack of dimension to these characters that robs the events of the second half of their suspense, and those events aren’t exactly sizzling with tension to begin with. After absconding with duffel bags of money (Lorea is probably the only crime boss in the history of cinema who has never heard of offshore bank accounts), Triple Frontier settles into a lugging-heavy-bags-through-the-jungle survival story. There are sporadic moments of genuine thrill (such as a helicopter crash near a cocaine plantation), but you know something is amiss when one point of tension is Pope and Redfly arguing over how heavy their loot will make their getaway helicopter.
There is a Big Picture idea lurking in Triple Frontier, as our band of rogues finds itself parting with more and more of their stolen money to get past one practical obstacle after another. But without layered characters to root for, the ungainly metaphor about greed and the redemptive power of letting it go lands with a thud. Triple Frontier feels like one of those bags of loot: something weighty, sure, but also something you need to drag.
Triple Frontier is currently streaming on Netflix.