Triple Frontier review

Ben Affleck Gets Grim in the Jungle With 'Triple Frontier'

Playboy's Stephen Rebello reviews J.C. Chandor's Netflix heist film that also stars Oscar Isaac

Courtesy: Netflix

Based on pedigree alone, Netflix’s heist action thriller Triple Frontier—in theaters for a blink-and-you-missed-it week, and now streaming as of March 13—ought to be way better than it is. The movie boasts a screenplay cowritten by Mark Boal, Kathryn Bigelow’s collaborator on Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. The gifted J.C. Chandor (All Is Lost, A Most Violent Year)—who writes and directs things that are nuanced and morally complex—directed.

So it’s no wonder the project piqued the interest of Bigelow (credited here as an executive producer), as well as Tom Hanks, Mahershela Ali, Johnny Depp, Channing Tatum, Mark Wahlberg and Will Smith in the years it spent in development. Now it has Ben Affleck, Garrett Hedlund, Charlie Hunnam, Oscar Isaac and Pedro Pascal playing ex-Special Forces operatives who reteam to go rogue by raiding the jungle lair of a monstrous, reclusive South American drug kingpin (Reynaldo Gallagos), ice him, rob his $250 million in ill-gotten gains (he keeps it in his home?) and haul it out. 
The first third of the flick spends its time on Isaac—he’s Santiago “Pope” Garcia, who is embedded in South America and collaborates in drug interdiction with the local police. He's reassembling the elite team, many of whom are now motivated as much for a desperate need for money as they are altruism. Like Isaac’s character, most of these guys also sport flashy middle names that could have been lifted from one of director Howard Hawks’ classic men-under-pressure macho melodramas from the 1930s to the '60s, like Only Angels Have Wings, Sergeant York or The Thing.

There’s Charlie Hunnam as William “Ironhead” Miller, who is obsessed with counting things like the number of people he’s killed, and spends his time doing PR with active-duty soldiers, warning them against the pitfalls of joining the dangerously swelling ranks of for-profit mercenaries. Pascal is flyboy Francisco “Catfish” Morales, caught in a coke bust but struggling to find ways to support his new kid. Affleck, as sullen as ever, is Tom “Redfly” Davis, the brilliant military man, now a divorced guy reduced to selling condos to support his combative teenage daughter and keep his old truck in gas and oil. Hunnam’s brother Ben is the gung-ho, out-for-adventure type. He is played by the terrific Garrett Hedlund but doesn’t get a groovy nickname, which is odd considering that Ben is an MMA fighter.
Sure, the premise feels like a bit of The Dirty Dozen here, The Expendables there, with a dash of Ocean’s Eleven. You know: a bunch of pros gathering for one last big score. And by the rules of the games played by makers of smart genre movies, this early stuff ought to rope us in, make us care about these dudes and their mission. But with characterizations so one-note and surface-y, even with this talented, charismatic group of actors, it’s apathy, not empathy, we feel.

The guys pull off the heist, which is enjoyably tense but feels almost dashed-off and impatient, as if the movie has deeper concerns Chandor is anxious to dramatize. But then should come the major action and raw red meat of the movie. How are they going to survive while dragging a couple hundred money-filled duffel bags through the jungle? What’s the endgame when the ex-soldiers begin to lapse into destructive kill mode, not for country but for personal gain? How far will the moviemakers push the parallels of America’s misguided and destructive forays into Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq and its obsession with capitalism? 
The well-made but frustrating Triple Frontier has almost everything going for it but depth, focus and gravitas.
The movie, lavishly shot for big panoramas by cinematographer Roman Vasyanov, becomes a study in grit, greed and regret as the mission turns dark, and innocent lives are lost. For lovers of brilliant, multilayered, action-packed morality plays, images of a Treasure of the Sierra Madre meets The Wages of Fear dance in our heads. If only.

The escape scenes of struggling to cross the Andes, and the moments when our “heroes” turn against each other, are more than competent, but they’re just not gripping, despite the best acting efforts of Isaac, Affleck and the rest of the crew. The well-made but frustrating Triple Frontier, which takes its title from the intersection of the borders of Brazil, Peru and Colombia, has almost everything going for it but depth, focus and gravitas.

Triple Frontier

Pros
The great-looking film features strong performances and plenty of tension
Cons
A pillage-by-numbers script makes it tough to care about the outcome
Rating: 2.5 out of 4 bunnies

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