The films of J.C. Chandor come with an inherent morality to them. His first feature, Margin Call, had employees at an investment bank coming to grips with the financial crisis happening right before their eyes and his last film, A Most Violent Year, featured a businessman on the brink of destruction due to seedy business practices. Simply put, if you want to undertake a criminal enterprise in a Chandor film, karma is going to get you.
Chandor’s latest, Triple Frontier, therefore has a certain inevitability among its action heist exterior. What beings as Three Kings-meets-Ocean’s Eleven eventually becomes a special forces version of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. No ill-earned money in films is ever as easy as it seems, and Chandor – along with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty writer Mark Boal – play right into the chaos that comes with such spoils.
Santiago “Pope” Garcia (Oscar Isaac), a former Green Beret, who is tired of running down drug dealers, is getting too old for this shit. His informant/girlfriend Yovanna (Adria Arjona) tells him of a drug dealer known as Lorea, who has $75 million hidden in his South American hideout. Garcia decides to go for the always-doomed “one last job” and gathers a team of his former Green Beret buddies. Tom “Redfly” Davis (Ben Affleck) is the planning brains of the operation, who is having a hard time paying for his familial responsibilities. Rounding out the crew are brothers William “Iron Head” Miller (Charlie Hunnam) and Ben (Garrett Hedlund) and transportation expert Francisco “Catfish” Morales (Pedro Pascal). They’re all older, exhausted and frustrated that they can’t make end’s meet.
Once the group has infiltrated Lorea’s compound, they discover that there’s over three times the money they anticipated. Greed and deviations from their plan start to catch up with them as they try to move over a hundred duffel bags full of money across South America.
The first half of Triple Frontier is quite exciting in its planning stages, and in the stealth-filled take on the Lorea house. There’s a precision to this team that has worked together for years, and it’s thrilling to watch them in their element. At this point, Chandor’s most action-packed directing has been the slow burn dread of watching Robert Redford try not to drown in All is Lost, so the results here are surprisingly good.
Once money enters the equation however, it’s as if this well-honed team starts to fall apart in all the expected ways. The team starts to second guess themselves, and every slight mistake they make causes suffering for them down the line. Money gets lost, suspicions are raised and danger mounts. It’s not as if this second half isn’t suspenseful and tense, it’s just Triple Frontier’s presentation of what happens to this group when money comes into the mix is conventional and familiar in the way that has been shown over and over again in film.
Boal’s screenplay is full of cause and effect, with every action having a reaction. Resting for a second can cause the loss of millions, or showing compassion to an angry individual can bite this group in the ass down the line. Boal’s screenplay is tight in its narrative ideas, but is lacking in character. Affleck’s “Redfly” is the only character given any real reason to go on this journey – beyond just wanting the supposedly easy money – which easily makes him the most compassionate character. After too many years spent behind the cowl as Batman, it’s great to see Affleck with a role that gives him something to sink his teeth in. But everyone else here are bodies to fill out the crew, without much more to them. Boal’s screenplays tend to work best when they focus on one central character among the action – as with Zero Dark Thirty – and Triple Frontier only points out Boal’s weakness with larger casts.
Triple Frontier starts as a compelling and unique heist film, and only becomes less so the further the journey goes. Chandor isn’t bad with action, but Boal’s screenplay, with its attempts at moralizing and telling a fairly standard thriller story, only hurts what could’ve potentially been Netflix’s first great action film.