FILM REVIEW – TRIPLE FRONTIER. Starring Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Heldund, Pedro Pascal. Written by Mark Boal and J.C. Chandor. Directed by J.C. Chandor. Rated R for violence and language throughout. 125 minutes.
A heaping plate of meat-and-potatoes comfort food, Netflix’s TRIPLE FRONTIER is a throwback to the sort of solid, mid-budget action pictures that studios used to crank out during the spring and fall off-seasons back before everything had to be a godforsaken franchise. It’s one of those films that would turn a small profit in theaters before reaching full cultural saturation two years later via heavy basic cable rotation on weekend afternoons. Unpretentious, unassuming and a bit better than expected, it’s the kind of movie you talk about with your Dad.
Oscar Isaac stars as Santiago “Pope” Garcia, a burnt-out military contractor working for the government of a deliberately unnamed Latin American country. He’s spent the past three years trying to take down an elusive drug lord who’s now holed up in a jungle fortress, sitting on $75 million in cash. Santiago is so fed up with the corrupt and ineffectual local law enforcement, he hatches a plan to round up his old army buddies so they can ice the bastard themselves and make off with all his money.
The years have not been kind to our former soldiers, with Charlie Hunnam’s “Ironhead” Miller making motivational speeches to PTSD cases while his kid brother Ben (Garrett Hedlund) gets his head bashed in every night as an MMA fighter to make ends meet. Their pilot pal “Catfish” Morales (Pedro Pascal) just lost his license over a coke bust while their old captain “Redfly” Davis – a beefy, surprisingly believable Ben Affleck – chugs PBRs for breakfast and is the least persuasive condo salesman you’ve ever seen onscreen.
“You got shot four times defending your country and can’t afford to send your kids to college,” goes Santiago’s recruiting pitch. (His captain corrects him, it was actually five.) The screenplay, revised by director J.C. Chandor from an original script by “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty” writer Mark Boal, is upfront and blunt about our government’s shoddy treatment of veterans. So we can’t really blame all that much for wanting to finally cash in here, especially if it’s at the expense of some seriously bad cartel dudes.
The neat twist of “Triple Frontier” is that the heist goes even better than planned. Our boys wind up scoring $250 million instead of the expected seventy-five. Problem is that’s four times as much weight as they’d prepared to transport. So how do you move three tons of money over the Andes mountains? It’s a logistical nightmare that Chandor – who previously helmed the excellent Robert Redford vs. The Ocean adventure “All Is Lost” – exploits for some hair-raising set-pieces both predictable and less so.
It’s a film of modest pleasures, well-executed even while Chandor should probably have taken another pass to brush up the boys’ occasionally banal banter. (How strange that the professional fighter in the group is the only one without a cool nickname.) There are a couple of groaner needle-drop music cues — I’m sponsoring a Constitutional amendment prohibiting any further use of Creedence Clearwater Revival in military movies — but I quite enjoyed the deployment of Metallica, Pantera, and period-specific heavy metal that guys who enlisted twentysomething years ago would totally have been listening to when they signed up.
The biggest surprise here is Affleck, taking over a role that Tom Hanks was set to play back when Kathryn Bigelow was going to direct Boal’s original screenplay in 2010. His massive Batman physique has settled into something lumpier, lending the look of a guy who’s gone to seed. Affleck’s screen presence has always been too slick and callow to brood believably, but washing up on the rocks of middle age he’s developing a dissolute gravitas that quite suits him here. (His fifties could be full of some interesting character turns.) For all of this movie’s extensively well-researched military minutiae, my favorite detail is when he makes sure to slip his beer into a cozy while driving his daughter to school.
The thing with Netflix movies is they don’t really even have to be good enough to justify getting dressed and leaving the house. These things just magically pop up on your television screen already paid for, and ideally you hope they won’t be a total waste of two hours. By such modest measures, a pretty good movie like “Triple Frontier” is a smashing success.•••
Over the past twenty years Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.