Reading about the development details of this Netflix offering, one can consider this to be a troubled production. Since word of it first popped up nearly nine years ago the cast has gone through numerous changes, with names as different as Tom Hanks and Mahershala Ali signed up at various times, while Katheryn Bigelow went from director to producer. The distributor changed a few times too, until Netflix, as they have done with several well-noted properties recently, stepped in late in the game, to turn Triple Frontier into their latest big-name release. And “big-name” is apropos, as Netflix continues to mark itself out as one of the serious distributors with this big-name cast. But with all of the changes behind-the-scenes, it would have been very easy for the end-product to be a lacklustre affair, just another spec-ops story that happens to have a notable cast. Was this the case, or was Triple Frontier a property worth waiting for?
While working as an adviser to Colombian police combating drug crime, special ops veteran Pope (Oscar Isaac) receives information on a local kingpin and the location of his cash stockpile. Together with his veteran friends – down-on-his-luck Redfly (Ben Affleck), motivational speaker Ironhead (Charlie Hunnum), MMA fighter Ben (Garrett Hedlund) and expert pilot Catfish (Pedro Pascal) – Pope puts together an off-the-books heist job, but the groups mettle and cohesion is put to the test when things start to go wrong.
Tripe Frontier rises and falls on its central theme, which amounts to an examination of the psychological scars left by combat, and how they twist and poison a mind even years after the acts that created them. On the one hand, it wields this concept like a sledgehammer, metaphorically bludgeoning the audience almost from the very start, as if director J. C. Chandor is worried the viewer may not get what he is going for. But on the other hand, it proves Triple Frontier’s greatest strength in the end, in what amounts to a character study of a unit under strain, and how they react in a world that has passed them by.
Charlie Hunnam’s motivational speaker’s pitch to serving US military personnel is practically a thesis statement for the film at large, outlined in painfully obvious terms: that war’s effects are physical and mental, that the sense of pride and duty attached to such activities are practically requirements when it comes to taking care of a soldiers mental health and that they should be wary of what will come once they decide, or are obligated, to take the uniform off.
For at least the first half of his production, Chandor, also a co-writer with Mark Boal, can’t help but double down on these themes and their elongation to the audience, to the point that you wonder why he was suffering such a crisis of confidence in the material. I often find military fiction of this type suffering from such flaws, a failure of subtlety and a recourse to easy story-telling tropes, and plenty of Triple Frontier is full of them. By the time Pope gives the inevitable “Don’t you think we deserve more for all we’ve done for our country?” speech – recent-watch Dragged Across Concrete had a picture-perfect replica around the half-way point – the surrounds have become so familiar as to breed contempt. Society has failed them, now society is going to pay, kinda.
But then, once we get beyond the heist sequence, which happens surprisingly early in the running time, Triple Frontier takes that ball of thesis statements and runs and runs with it, to far more fruitful territory. The scars of war are evident on all five members of Pope’s team, including himself, bubbling to the service once the veneer of professionalism is tested even slightly. Indeed, “veneer” is an appropriate word: for a time they conduct themselves as master soldiers turned master criminals, with a sense of honour and pride in the way they treat both combatants and non-combatants. But the taking of a human life in combat has left all of them with mental anguish: Triple Frontier is at its best in the moments when those shadows take over, and the ease of pulling the trigger threatens to reveal a really ugly interior.
In combination with that is a simple examination of greed, and in that it is substantially better. As soon as the magnitude of the pay-off becomes clear, those words previously said, like honour, professionalism, duty, all go out the window. Nobility is the purpose of many of these men, but it when it becomes money, things fall to pieces in a really interesting way. The Redfly character’s warning pre-heist, that they need to square away with themselves the fact that they are about to become criminals, looms alarmingly large; suddenly the take, maximizing it and getting home with it, becomes everything and turns Triple Frontier into a very different kind of film.
This is the true character study of Triple Frontier, when it suddenly becomes both watchable and engaging, in wondering just when the malevolent influence of all this cash is going to wreck things completely. Everyone makes bad decision over the bags of money, be it shooting up the ones trying to take it back, dragging its heavy weight along in an aircraft that can’t handle it, or risking everything for one more armful of green. Sure, it is just an extension of an “ordinary man in extraordinary situation” plot, but when done properly that can be as enthralling as when Marvel pulls it off.
The group are sudden soldiers of fortune unused to what that actually requires: even with the poison of the money infecting thee every move, they retain some element of a conscience, and regret, that prevents them from becoming outright antagonists. Of the five Isaac and Hunnum are probably the best in terms of performance, with Affleck certainly phoning it in at times, but it is as a group that they all seem to excel, this single entity that chafes, roars, despairs and triumphs at different points, looks to fall apart but manages to keep it all together past the point of normal human endurance. Such is the effect that you might not even remember the names of some of these characters, but there is a certain kind of spark between the five, sharing successes and failures with that recognisable kind of military black humour and overly-macho preening.
Even for its 2 hour+ length, Chandor manages to keep the tension boiling over in what rapidly becomes an unlikely tale of survival matched with being a simple enough heist plot. It’s the heist that’s easy, and every successive obstacle that comes afterwards is what makes Triple Frontier as engaging as it is. Comparisons to Narcos, another Netflix property about the South American drug trade that Pascal starred in, are inevitable, but misguided: that show is largely about the drug traffickers, who are non-existent as characters here. Instead, Triple Frontier focuses purely on the other side of the equation, and while that may be limiting in a way, it is not a illegitimate approach, given the ideas that Chandor is trying to get across, ideas about the limits of testosterone-driven masculine power. Comparisons to The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre are more apt I feel, both in terms of premise/theme, but also in the style of cast collected, who exhibit an old-school type pf presence.
Chandor directs a clear action-focused thriller in the parts that are an action thriller, and a clear character-focused drama in the parts that are a character drama. No shaky-cam or adventurous techniques to be found, and that’s a good thing: Chandor’s Triple Frontier only wants you noticing the backgrounds and the surrounds when it is of direct relevance to the five men in the centre of them, most notably when the environment starts to become increasingly desolate. The man behind A Most Violent Year and All Is Lost knows how to film things with an eye for tension while keeping the principals in the right frame. The actual heist sequence, wherein the unit methodically go about their business only to lose more and more control as the scale of the prize becomes obvious, is a great example, with simple shots, pans and cuts, eschewing titillating gun-play and bloodshed and giving a great idea of the size and scope of the location through mise-en-scene and the movement of the actors.
Despite some of its myriad flaws – a very slow and disjointed first act, some clunky dialogue and Ben Affleck wanting to be somewhere else at times – I did find myself warming to Triple Frontier, and liking it by the conclusion. Maybe with a less tortured developmental journey it might have been able to do something about those problems, but as it is, the film is mostly well put together, well acted and has some intelligent and pertinent things to say about self-proclaimed “warriors” and how they make their way in a world without a war to fight. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).