A film review by Craig J. Koban March 31, 2019


2019, No MPAA rating, 125 mins.


Ben Affleck as Tom "Redfly" Davis  /  Oscar Isaac as Santiago "Pope" Garcia  /  Charlie Hunnam as William "Iron Head" Miller  /  Pedro Pascal as Francisco "Catfish" Morales  /  Garrett Hedlund as Ben Miller  /  Adria Arjona as Yovanna  /  Sheila Vand as Lauren Yates

Directed by J.C. Chandor  /  Written by Mark Boal and Chandor





The new Netflix original film TRIPLE FRONTIER boasts some serious talent behind the scenes.  We have screenwriter Mark Boal, who previously penned and produced ZERO DARK THIRTY as well as winning an Oscar for his script for the Best Picture awarded THE HURT LOCKER.  Behind the camera for TRIPLE FRONTIER is J.C. Chandor, best known for one of the best outdoor survival films ever made in 2013's ALL IS LOST and previous to that he helmed the very decent MARGIN CALL and A MOST VIOLENT YEAR.  

With these two superlative creative minds calling the shots, TRIPLE FRONTIER approaches event status film levels, in my mind, that would rival any theatrically released fare.  That, and it also boasts a truly superb ensemble cast as well as a fairly ambitious men on a mission storyline that takes some surprising detours.  Chandor's film is also a handsomely produced and gritty visceral thriller that, despite awkwardly constructed opening sections built on wobbly writing, really picks up steam half way through.   

And, wow, this cast is indeed great.  The ever versatile Oscar Isaac (who also appeared in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR for Chandor) plays Santiago "Pope" Garcia, a disheartened ex-military man turned merc for hire that has lost his moral ways in a three year effort to bring a Brazilian drug kingpin to justice.  Not only has he taken to use questionable methods (like using his informant lover - played by Arian Arjona - to put her in harms way), but he grows increasingly fed up with the lack of results from local law enforcement officials.  Not being able to stand his working conditions, Santiago decides to journey back home to America to persuade his best former Special Forces buddies to launch a fiendishly clever, yet dangerous plan to steal $75 million from drug czar's heavily fortified jungle compound.  Seeing as he has done the necessary reconnaissance for quite some time, Santiago knows every possible vantage point to gain access to the loot; all he needs is a squad he can trust. 



That's kind of the hard part, though.  Initially, his completely down on his luck pal in Tom "Redfly" Davis (Ben Affleck) doesn't want in, but with an abysmal career of failure in real estate on the home front wearing down on his soul, he begrudgingly accepts Santiago's offer.  Also in is a military motivational speaker in William "Ironhead" Miller (Charlie Hunnam) and his younger sibling Ben (Garrett Hedlund), who now makes ends meet by being an MMA fighter.  Rounding off the team is Francisco "Catfish" Mor (Pedro Pascal), a pilot that got into hot water and is now grounded.  Of course, all of these men have hit financially hard times and have their respective and obvious reasons why they need the money from this score, and the team does manage to infiltrate the kingpin's out of the way stronghold and look poised to make way with all of his hidden loot...and then...well...things go south really, really fast. 

At face value, TRIPLE FRONTIER seems like it couldn't be anymore different of a film for Chandor than his previous efforts, but when one scrutinizes with a closer look some common thematic threads can be seen, such as how the stresses of complex moral conundrums and uncertainties have a powerful negative influence on strong men.  To be sure, TRIPLE FRONTIER is essentially one of those age old genre pictures about one man trying to band together his once tight and dexterous team in order to hatch out and execute one proverbial "last score."  The film has a definitive been-there, done-that vibe of familiarity, to be sure.  Still, there's the added thematic complexity of these ex-military men that feel mightily scorned by their own country and governments for not having looked after them properly after giving their lives for their country by serving it.  For most of these men, they're barely able to financially survive, which adds a compelling dramatic undercurrent to the film.  Santiago and his men are not evil people, nor hardened crooks.  They simply need to steal to stay afloat back home.  TRIPLE FRONTIER becomes, as a result of this, an intriguingly unique dissection of how pure survival instincts born out of understandable motives later gives way to pure and insatiable greed that begins to mentally unravel these poor souls. 

Once the film gets to the bulk of the heist - about midway through - it becomes something wholly absorbing and quite thrilling.  Of course, and like innumerable past heist films, there are always hiccups along the way that prevent the thieves from having a silky smooth operation that runs perfectly.  And it certainly appears early on that Santiago's crew is going to pull this one off without a hitch, but then when they discover more money than they could possibly imagine secretly hidden throughout the home - more than they are even capable of taking in one trip - their lust for the fortune begins to override their common sense, which ultimately proves dangerously problematic for them.  Greed begins to poison them all, and even though they narrowly make it out of the compound, they then find themselves in a life and death/cat and mouse game with not only the drug lord's armed thugs, but with the rigors of the harsh Brazilian terrain that conspires against them during their escape efforts.  This all leads to the men making hasty judgment calls that, more often than not, builds towards them all committing acts of violence that places them in the same ethical position as those they are stealing from. 

For the most part, TRIPLE FRONTIER works as a sobering piece about good and noble minded men that were once driven by a strong code of conduct in the military and now feel spit on by the institutions they swore to defend, which leads to them being corrupted by criminal pursuits.  I would easily argue that the sections of the film after the semi-botched heist are among the most feverishly intense, which shows the more primal battles - both mentally and physically - that these men face while trying to secure their escape and ensuring their very survival.  Chandor does an exceedingly assured job during these sequences, drumming up nail biting tension with each dangerous impediment that comes these men's ways.  Everything snowballs for them, one way or another, as they have to steer clear of one obstacle after another, which each new one getting bigger than the last.  And as the men are forced to brace with the natural elements around them destroying their sanity from the inside out, they then begin to make snap judgments about their own trust in one another, which complicates things immensely.  Thankfully, Boal and Chandor cook up some unexpected surprises along the way to keep viewers off balance. 

Having said all of that, I only wished that the opening sections of TRIPLE FRONTIER were handled better.  The first half hour or so of this film is very stiffly written, especially in the dialogue front, when actors of the caliber of Affleck and Isaac are forced to carve their respective teeth into some awfully forced, contrived, and wooden exchanges that we've heard time and time again in these types of films that only exist for establishing expositional particulars.  The characters themselves are also lacking in dimension as well, and most of them are not afforded the depth that they all deserve for us to have a thorough rooting interest in their cause.  These men are delineated as broad character types, and not much else, which frequently makes it hard for audiences to really care about their plight later on in the film.  That's not to say that Affleck, Isaac and company don't do what they can to make their roles interesting, but when they're not given much to work with on the page, that's a different problem altogether. 

Still, I found myself enjoying TRIPLE FRONTIER as a pure technical exercise in genre filmmaking more than anything else.  The action sequences are robust and thrilling, and the film's sense of chilling atmosphere is palpable.  I also think that Chandor and Boal have much more up their collective sleeves with this film than simply offering up yet another dime-a-dozen heist thriller, and the undercurrent of how the government treats ex-military and how, in turn, this leads to them feeling occupationally useless and driven to crooked acts is most certainly fascinating.  I don't think that Chandor pulls off everything as successfully as he wanted to, and TRIPLE FRONTIER is absolutely one of the lesser films of his accomplished resume.  However, he's a good enough ringmaster to make conventional material here work on other enthralling levels, which I think is enough to not dismiss it altogether.   

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