Triple Frontier movie review: This Netflix heist thriller is an all-boys film that works only in parts
In Triple Frontier, the ‘plot’ aspects of the screenplay work well, but when the characters driving that plot are not fully-formed and layered, it seeps through.
In spirit, Netflix’s Triple Frontier is in many ways the antithesis of Zero Dark Thirty, the common link between the two films being writer Mark Boal. The former focused on one woman working doggedly and painfully towards something that was seen as a national, nay, global goal, while the latter is essentially a boys’ film where former soldiers breezily eschew lofty patriotic ambition in favour of good old greed.
Director JC Chandor of Margin Call and A Most Violent Year-fame teams up with Boal to create a film that coasts along comfortably through its runtime because of its (all-male) ensemble lead cast and a script that is always in motion; except, by the end of it, the point of the film — if there was one — seems lost.
Triple Frontier has an interesting choice of subject, given the current age of overt nationalism in the world’s major democracies. Conventional thought on soldiers paints them alternately as noble protectors of national pride and efficient killing machines. They serve only the greater good, never themselves.
Chandor and Boal turn that on its head, as five ex-special forces operatives team up to loot a drug cartel kingpin hiding in a border region in South America; except, they are doing it primarily to get rich. You think that there is commentary on American capitalism in there somewhere, as also a statement of violence and war being essentially a ‘masculine’ solution to conflict.
The attempt was clearly to make a mature, gritty heist thriller with what is referred to these days merely as ‘feels’. Crack soldiers, clinical assassins, buddies on a mission; some stunning cinematography; and a script that plunders on without ever getting too loud and flashy despite frequent twists, playing off old-fashioned banter between good looking men; all of this would have made for a smashing big screen watch perhaps earlier in this decade or even before that.
In the old days of ‘before Netflix’, this could have been an early summer blockbuster. Today, it is just one among the near-infinite ‘something for everyone’ catalogue of the streaming giant. (Sure, Triple Frontier must certainly have an audience out there, which is why it is on Netflix in the first place.)
There are scenes in there that will remind you of earlier films of both Boal and Chandor, a fact which is both, good and bad for the film. With the air of a world-weary traveling minstrel who has nothing new to see or say, the film depends largely on individual moments of brilliance rather than a cohesive story that *needed* to be told.
The characters are fairly stock, their motivations all-too-familiar — the family guy, the hot-headed guy, the leader of the pack, the works; to the point that when diversity quota candidate Pedro Pascal says, ‘I didn’t sign up for this’, you almost see it coming.
What is not as predictable, though, is the way their mission pans out. There is the heist, then there is the after-heist, and both portions of the film are set up well, with some taut scenes that feel like a punch to the gut.
Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Garrett Hedlund, Charlie Hunnam and Pascal — all play their parts well, though there is something so generic about their characters that anyone could have played anyone, and it would not have mattered. (Except for Pascal, of course. The actor possesses a strange quality where he always looks like he knows more than anyone else sharing the screen with him.)
Simply put, the ‘plot’ aspects of the screenplay work well, but when the characters driving that plot are not fully-formed and layered, it seeps through. Thus, the stakes in Triple Frontier, even when death is on the line, feel momentary.
The paradox of the film is that it features on a platform that, by its very nature, encourages diverse thought and stories that have never been told before, from voices that have never been heard before; yet, between Netflix’s Narcos, Boal’s own earlier work, and the general ongoing abundance of stories from the South American drug trade in pop culture, this film gives you the impression that the same man has been talking for a while. Oh.
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