Crime doesn't pay! It's good to be reminded of that now and then, because temptation lurks round every corner. There were Milky Way bars within reach at the drugstore when we were young, there are near-infinite stacks of untraceable dollar bills in a drug kingpin's jungle lair when we're older. Thank you, Hollywood cinema, for scaring me straight to the righteous path once again!
Triple Frontier is a strong, extremely watchable movie that took an interesting route to your Netflix accounts. It was written by Mark Boal, best known for his collaborations with Kathryn Bigelow, and was originally intended to be Bigelow's follow-up to the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker with Tom Hanks and Johnny Depp in the leads. Eventually the project came to J.C. Chandor (All Is Lost, A Most Violent Year) with Will Smith. Then it was going to be Channing Tatum, Tom Hardy, Mahershala Ali and, for a moment, Mark Wahlberg. Name a big actor and they were, at one time, going to be in this damn movie. Clearly something was attracting Hollywood's machinery, but something else was scaring it off.
My interpretation is this: The movie is good, and part of the reason it is good is because it doesn't quite go as you'd expect. But big movie studios think so little of ticket-buying audiences that they are gun-shy around anything that even slightly deviates from the norm. It took the visionaries at Netflix — the entertainment company with a tech company attitude — to pull the trigger. This sort of behavior may eventually backfire (what happens when there are no more subscriptions to sell?), but for now we have an exciting rainforest adventure front-loaded with stars to watch from the comforts of our couches.
Okay, with all that business aside, what the hell is Triple Frontier about? Oscar Isaac is "Pope," a retired military specialist on loan to an unnamed Latin American police force. (The "triple frontier" of the movie is a real spot where Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay meet, but after hunting around for clues I'm pretty sure this movie is set at the "Tres Fonteras" where Brazil, Columbia and Peru meet. This confusion might, however, be intentional commentary on American ignorance. This movie is crafty!) Anyway, Pope has someone on the inside (a woman who has fallen for his Oscar Isaac-y charms) and he's ready for the bust of a lifetime. The thing is this: The baddie deserves to go down, but does all that dough deserve to just end up back with some corrupt government?
Stateside, Pope's buddies are all busting their humps. "Ironhead" (Charlie Hunnam) is still technically in the armed forces. His job is to convince servicemen with elite training not to go over to the private sector. "Catfish" (Pedro Pascal), a pilot, is grounded on a minor drug charge. Ben (Garret Hedlund) is getting his face busted up in cheapo MMA fights at school gymnasiums. And "Redfly" (Ben Affleck), well, that's most tragic of all.
A brilliant strategist whose given his best years to his country, he's been chewed up and spit out, divorced, in debt, selling crappy condos. Strike that, failing to sell crappy condos. The actor behind "Sad Affleck" memes has found an appropriate role in Triple Frontier.
But this one score could put them all on easy street. They have the know-how, the guts, the experience and, dammit, they deserve it. There's some push-pull but eventually the guys are all in.
Director Chandor shoots the heist in a unique way. They raid the villain's hacienda during a downpour. The light through the window is eerie and hazy. It goes well (well, one guy gets shot, but the bullet goes right through, and these fellas are tough) and the score is far higher than they ever expected. Could the movie ... be over?
No, hell no, we've only just begun. Triple Frontier isn't about the theft, it's about the getaway. And that getaway involves an overloaded helicopter, the Andes Mountain range, a remote village and hundreds of kilos worth of bad luck.
This isn't completely new terrain, but unlike movies like The Treasure of Sierra Madre or The Wages of Fear, it isn't so much greed that threatens to destroy our characters, it's just ... the nature of things. By nature I mean, in part, actual nature, like the treacherous cliff edges of the Andes, but also the inevitability in life that the little guy is always going to get screwed.
There are varying strata of "little guy," naturally. The villagers bossed around by the drug lords of Triple Frontier obviously have it worse than Affleck's character who, you know, carries a lot of debt on his Discover card. But even though visions of riches force some heinous split-second decisions, we are still sympathetic. There are greater forces at play, and it's best summarized in a moment when our band is feeling low and they say, essentially, boy, we gotta stop screwing up. Since this is a Chandor/Boal film and not a Michael Bay film it's clear that there is some wider symbolism at play here about the American military and its ripple effects on everyone.
Chandor's sly wink pops up everywhere. When the team first heads to Latin America there are some chopper shots set to Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Run Through The Jungle." Great song, but it's been used, according to the IMDb, 20 other times in shows and films. When it came up early in Triple Frontier I rolled my eyes. Later in the film, I realized this was Chandor setting me up for a fall. Much like, in a way, the characters in Triple Frontier themselves.
But don't let talk of guilt-inducing political themes scare you off. This is, foremost, an adventure film with some great actors, particularly Isaac. And the next time you catch wind of a minimally guarded treasure vault, you'll know well enough to leave alone.
Triple Frontier is now streaming on Netflix.
Jordan Hoffman is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, whose work has appeared in The Guardian, VanityFair.com, amNewYork, Thrillist and Times of Israel.