Like many films before it, J.C. Chandor’s “Triple Frontier” features an all-star cast of macho badasses, wielding high-powered arsenals as confidently as if they were shooting bullets from their own limbs. They drink beer. They listen to Metallica. They use the skills they’ve developed over a lifetime of war to make a lot of money and look damn good doing it.
But unlike a lot of films before it, “Triple Frontier” seems completely disappointed in those badasses. The script, by Chandor (“A Most Violent Year”) and Mark Boal (“Zero Dark Thirty”), sends a group of grizzled veterans into a high-stakes heist situation which — as you can imagine — goes horribly wrong, but the tragedy isn’t that they might not get the money. The tragedy is that they tried.
Oscar Isaac stars as Santiago “Pope” Garcia, who has been working in South America to apprehend a powerful kingpin named Lorea. After an unexpectedly panic-inducing shootout at a disco, Garcia learns Lorea’s location from one of his informants and immediately begins assembling a team of tough guys he can trust to get the job done.
There’s William “Ironhead” Miller (Charlie Hunnam), a veteran whose new job seems to consist entirely of giving de-motivational speeches to current soldiers, discouraging them from using their deadly skills in the private sector. There’s William’s brother Ben (Garrett Hedlund), who now makes a living getting pummeled in MMA fights. There’s the skilled pilot Francisco “Catfish” Morales (Pedro Pascal), who’s just had his pilot’s license suspended.
But most importantly, to these guys at least, there’s Tom “Redfly” Davis (Ben Affleck), whose heroism in the line of duty has been matched only by his lousy luck since leaving the military. Divorced, swimming in debt, and alienated from his daughter, Redfly doesn’t just need a job. He needs a purpose, and the purpose Pope gives him isn’t noble: It’s just money.
Tilt your head a bit, and you can see the film that “Triple Frontier” almost was, a rousing thriller about action heroes getting pulled out of retirement for one last job. Cinematographer Roman Vasyanov (“Fury”) sure as heck films it like a sleek action thriller, with deadly warriors popping out of luscious green jungles and cold, calculated camera movements designed to make the gunplay look clear and natural.
No doubt about it: “Triple Frontier” looks and sounds exciting, but when Pope reveals that his real plan is to kill and rob Lorea and then take all the money for themselves, the air gets let out of the protagonists. What began as a potentially noble sacrifice has turned into a selfish act of violence, and the movie is all too eager to punish them for it. Not with a farcical hand of god, like in the Bill Murray classic “Quick Change,” but to the dour extent of an Henri-Georges Clouzot film.
Society has failed these men. Now all they can hope for is to take part in this cash grab. There’s a meta-narrative in there somewhere, condemning films like “Triple Frontier” for exploiting the violence of war for superficial ends, but Chandor doesn’t delve into self-analysis long enough to make a point about it. His characters are laser-focused soldiers who are, in some cases, monomaniacal about their mission. If their mission is morally and ethically compromised, then they are too.
That approach makes “Triple Frontier” thoughtful but also morose. The second half of Chandor’s film is an increasingly arduous trek across South America with more cash than the Incredible Hulk could lift, and we watch as our would-be heroes turn on each other, and turn against baseline morality, as they do whatever they deem necessary to accomplish the mission. The further they go, the more lifeless their surroundings, to the extent that they’ve seemingly killed the living essence of the movie.
“Triple Frontier” may do too good a job of subverting our expectations, as the slings and arrows Chandor and Boal fling at these thieves are sometimes protracted and lacking suspense. They excellently make their point about the significance of responsible soldiering, but maybe they could have done it faster, or with a few more exclamation points, so the rest of us could stay transfixed with the movie instead of mentally checking out after we recognize the underlying message and nodding in general approval.
And it probably would have helped if the cast were given more to play with. So trapped are our heroes in their situational awareness that they barely have room for personal conflict. Even the character who goes too far and jeopardizes the mission out of greed (we’ve all seen heist movies, there’s usually at least one of them) doesn’t go far enough to drive a visible wedge within the group. They’re too professional for that, which unfortunately makes them — on occasion — too professional to be interesting characters.
“Triple Frontier” isn’t the high-octane thriller you might expect from the film’s explosive beginning, although if it were, it would be one of the best-looking and -sounding high-octane thrillers on the market. Instead it’s a morality tale, a noble endeavor, but one that gets sidetracked by its own sleek delivery. Chandor’s film isn’t malleable enough to fit into the moral grey zones into which it ventures; it’s too battle-hardened for that. But it’s an ambitious and absorbing above-average thriller with something deeper on its mind, making this sometimes somber journey worthwhile.