‘We’re a dyin’ breed, boys,” says one of the ex-military hotshots after yet another cockup in Netflix’s action thriller Triple Frontier. Well, yes, according to Darwinian logic, stupidity is supposed to be hazardous to your breed.
Despite the Academy Awards background of its creators, Triple Frontier appears superficially to be one of those cigar-chomping 1980s actioners in which Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone or (if the budget was tight) Lee Marvin or Chuck Norris would summon a swaggering squad of thunder-eaters and hell-belchers to thrash their way into the jungle to take out a drug lord, or an alien, or an alien drug lord.
The bad hombres in Triple Frontier have the requisite cool names: Pope (Oscar Isaacs) is a mercenary working with Latin American officials to thump the cartels south of the border with the aid of his favorite snitch (Adria Arjona), who is also his girlfriend. Hired by some agency or other to help them take out Lorea, the king of all drug kings in South America, he asks his old military buddy Redfly (Ben Affleck) to get back in the game. Redfly, like Affleck himself, is a bit seedy and at sea. He’s trying to sell third-rate condos, which is almost as embarrassing as being fired as Batman. Redfly has a teen daughter and a lot of alimony to deal with, and looks like he’d be more likely to win a burger-eating contest than erase a drug lord, but Pope manages to shame him into action by reminding he was shot five times for his country and “can’t even afford a new truck.” Sick burn.
Just for providing assistance in a recon mission, Redfly stands to pocket $17,000, but while they’re casing the drug kingpin’s hideout, the two men and their team of old hands (Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund, Pedro Pascal) discover the supposed most dangerous man in South America has pretty much no perimeter security and only two armed guards, at least on Sunday mornings when the family is at church. What if the boys simply declined the mission offered them by the authorities and went into business for themselves? That way they could pocket whatever money they find, which figures to be millions. Pope’s inside source works in the house and is even game to park a getaway van for the boys inside the gates of the compound.
Convenient as everything is — my apartment building has more security than this supposed fortress, and the team enters the house by walking through an unlocked door — things go somewhat astray, leading to lots of killing and chasing. Yet all of the heroes’ problems are their own damn fault. We’re forever being told what an indispensable leader Redfly is, and others won’t go on the mission without him. When he gives the plan, the others receive it as though it were inscribed on stone tablets.
Halfway through the mission, this supposed master tactician changes the plan, then changes it again, motivated by nothing but insane mega-greed, the kind that ought to be quenched when you’ve got tens of millions loaded on your van. Greed turns out to be the fatal character flaw in the film by writer-director J. C. Chandor, but he seems not to be aware of this, or in any case does nothing with it. Quentin Tarantino might have made the same plot the basis for a hilariously cynical critique of human failings, John Huston might have shaped it into a stern moral lesson. The lesson of Chandor’s film is, I guess, that stuff can go wrong when you mess with drug nabobs.
Chandor, who co-wrote his script with Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) is building a strange, in-between career. His movies (Margin Call, which got him an Oscar nomination for its screenplay, All Is Lost, A Most Violent Year) aren’t smart or deep or original enough to qualify as art-house offerings, but since they lack the intense story engineering of studio films, they’re not multiplex films either. Triple Frontier is his biggest production to date, but you can see why it didn’t merit a theatrical release. A sign that Chandor has absolutely no idea where he’s going comes when he cues up Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” on the soundtrack. That track is about the military-industrial complex, though — “You that build all the guns/You that build the death planes.” It has no relevance whatsoever to a story about greedy soldiers of fortune who are so dumb they hatch a plan to hike over the Andes without winter gear (and seemingly without food, though no one in this movie seems to need to eat).
If Chandor is trying to suggest that the military forced these men into a dire situation by chewing up the best years of their lives for risible pay, which forced them to rob a drug lord to pay the bills, that’s a bit hard to swallow, but he doesn’t even pursue this angle with any vigor. Besides, Redfly and Pope would be fine if they just stuck to their plan, or if they weren’t so greedy that they try to make off with so many huge bales of money that it’s too much for a large helicopter to handle. A movie about super-soldiers going up against the odds might have been formulaic, but it would have been more interesting than this one, which is about tough-talking incompetents.