Two books came to mind during Triple Frontier, J.C. Chandor’s new Netflix movie: T.C. Boyle’s 1984 novel Budding Prospects, and In Search Of Captain Zero, Allan Weisbecker’s memoir about life in the drug smuggling business — all tales of people who took big risks on illegal scores and watched them spiral out of control. Heist movies usually consist of equal parts Rube-Goldberg machine and competence porn (who doesn’t love a planning montage?), but more often than not, well-laid plans go to shit.
Triple Frontier is that other kind, about when the plan goes sideways, offering both the vicarious thrill of gambling on an illegal payday and the kind of relief that comes from waking up from a dream where you really screwed up. In the same way, you watch Triple Frontier glad to be on your couch.
For as much as I’ve seen Ben Affleck’s weirdly photoshopped head staring back at me from posters all around Los Angeles lately (thankfully, not his back tattoo), Triple Frontier is particularly strong on production value. The second scene is a big action set piece, starring Oscar Isaac as an ex-special forces troop named “Pope,” who’s working with Mexican police to take down a drug house. Chandor (Margin Call, A Most Violent Year) is skilled at the lost art of action staging, creating a clear sense of spatial geography even as the squibs pop and the broken glass flies.
Pope has an informant, a beautiful lady informant, played by Adria Arjona, the only woman in the film, who puts Pope onto a big score: a drug lord living deep in the Brazilian jungle whose “house is the safe.” Triple Frontier takes its title from the Tres Fronteras region near the borders of Brazil, Peru, and Colombia, though sharp-eyed viewers might notice that a lot of it was filmed at Kualoa Ranch on Oahu, as seen in Lost and parts of Jurassic Park.
In order to carry out his big score, Pope puts together a team of handsome ex-troop former teammates, including a motivational speaker played by Charlie Hunnam (Ironhead), a failing condo salesman played by Ben Affleck (Redfly), a cokehead pilot played by Pedro Pascal from Narcos (Catfish), and an MMA fighter played by Garrett Hedlund (Ben — just Ben). The film begins with Ironhead speaking before a group of soldiers returning from the front, and God help me I still have a hard time getting past Hunnam’s uncanny valley accent. Luckily he doesn’t have to string too many sentences together after the first scene and we can concentrate on his tanned, fashionably rugged face. Though it is fun to imagine what this movie might’ve looked like like if Channing Tatum and Mahershala Ali and some of the other actors initially attached to it were still in it. Anyway, Oscar Isaac does most of the talking in Triple Frontier, and I could watch that man paint a house.
There’s a rich history of bootlicking in this kind of movie, from Michael Bay to Peter Berg to Taylor Sheridan, but Triple Frontier mostly keeps the troop worship subdued to a tolerable level. Mark Boal’s screenplay walks a fine line between making us sympathetic to returning vets and their shabby treatment without endorsing their scheme. Unlike lots of movies about army boys taking out drug lords, there’s no pretense of public service here (though plenty of nameless Mexicans do die spurting blood from surgical rifle fire). The film’s notable plot hole is that Pope has supposedly paid his friends’ $17,000 consulting fee out of his own pocket. Wait, this guy has $70 grand in the bank but he’s still desperate enough to try to steal from a drug lord? Damn, I need to budget better.
The beauty of Triple Frontier is that it explores all the implications of each step in the plan. So many movies lately, and heist movies especially, tend to just yada-yada parts of the caper, or worse, jump from one plot point to the next like they’re rushing through the pitch outline. The pitch is how you sell a story, it’s not how you tell one. Triple Frontier starts as a shoot ’em up but quickly it becomes a logistical problem — how the hell do you get tons of money out of the jungle undetected? The logistics of it are arguably more exciting, taking the Handsome Troop Five from jungle to coca field to perilous mountain pass.
The cover-up is worse than the crime, as the saying goes, and the dilemma of Triple Frontier is how dark are these guys willing to go in order to try to pull themselves out of a scheme that was morally suspect to begin with? It’s all about those tough decisions you have to make when you know you’ve taken the wrong path and you have to decide whether it’s better to double back or push on. The ending isn’t the film’s strongest point, but it’s hard to make a doomed heist seem satisfying. For the most part, it manages to deliver Call of Duty action and heist movie escapism without selling its soul in the process, a delicate dance very few movies manage.