A standard operating procedure mission about men, the military, and the slippery slope of greed, writer/director J.C. Chandor’s “Triple Frontier” may have some of those familiar elements, but it is still a violent and provocative collision of self-interest, dubious morality, and conscience through deeply flawed protagonists who get what they deserve and yet still deserve better. An engrossing story that touches on the plight of discarded veterans and their limited options, lifelong comrades, the darker impulses of human nature, and the misguided notion of the means justifying the end, “Triple Frontier” is not unlike “The Treasure of Sierra Madre,” The Wages of Fear” and its remake “Sorcerer,” with a little “Three Kings” thrown in too. In a louder and kinetic, but not vulgar, manner, Chandor (mostly) does for this military, men-in-the-jungle genre, what “A Most Violent Year” did for the crime genre: imbuing it with a sense of moral morass and desperation-inducing goal posts shifts about right and wrong.
On the surface and perhaps in its populist final moments, its recognizable qualities and genre limitations arguably render it as Chandor’s least interesting film, but taken on its own merits and as an experience, it’s quite a gripping, harrowing, and gut-punching bleak look at a grim world without heroes and honor.
Results will vary, however, depending on how much you’re willing to emotionally invest in these men, shafted by their government for their service as soldiers, but betray all their codes of conduct in the name of the almighty dollar. Problematic politics a la “Sicario”— an action drama it resembles, as well— will color opinion too, but that’s the point: the odiousness of U.S. interventionism, colonization, and American avarice is part of the very fabric of what the film’s narrative openly grapples with. These are already-compromised men and American invaders about to go on a compromised and immoral mission. What could possibly go wrong?
Originally a project by Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal—the creative team behind “The Hurt Locker,” “Zero Dark Thirty”—the duo remains executive producers in name, and Boal retains screenplay and story credits, but their approach has been increasingly journalistic, and emotionally distant. Chandor’s version of what was likely a colder procedural originally, is more humanistic than their remit; a muscular meditation on the unbreakable bonds of brotherhood as much as it also functions as a stress-inducing action thriller and a damning commentary on ugly American interlopers (especially deeper into the picture).
In “Triple Frontier”— the interconnecting section of South America borders known as an impenetrable safe haven for Latin drug lords— U.S. Special Forces operative Santiago “Pope” Garcia (Oscar Isaac) is fighting an unwinnable war against the murderous cartels. The game is corrupt and rigged, and every time the head of a drug kingpin is chopped off, a new one grows in its place immediately. But after a routine mission goes haywire, the secret location of an impossible-to-find narcos honcho accidentally shakes loose. Years of futile work and meandering small, insignificant victories suddenly take sharp focus and Pope sees an opening.
Returning to the U.S., under the guise of an innocuous reconnaissance mission, Pope eventually recruits (and convinces) a platoon of old, ex-Special Forces war buddies—Ben Affleck, Charlie Hunnam, Garett Hedlund, and Pedro Pascal—to go rogue and pull a daring and dangerous heists and steal from one of the richest and most heavily-fortified drug lords on the continent.
Naturally, things go f.u.b.a.r. and sideways and “Triple Frontier” becomes much more layered and many movies mashed along the way: a moral drama, veterans get screwed and want reparations, a band of brothers, men on a mission, jungle action thriller, and finally, harrowing survival film. It’s a lot of movie and running for a deceptively-short 2 hours, Chandor’s movie feels long, epic, and sprawling, but the bulky movie never feels too weighed down despite all the heavy gear.
Chandor gets a lot of mileage out of the Sad Affleck narrative and perhaps both director and actor lean into the idea. Spiritually bloated (maybe a little physically too) and washed-up, Affleck plays a former Special Forces expert who is divorced, living in the garage, and struggling to make ends meet for his broken family. Just the five minutes the movie spends to set up his estranged-family story is heartbreaking. And that little bit of framing goes a long way to express the emotional dilemma of all these lost soldiers: they have been abandoned by their government, forgotten by their country, are still disoriented by living outside of combat, and fight each day—sometimes literally— to scrape by. When Isaac’s ring leader arrives with this morally dubious, but tantalizing, and perilous idea—to get a piece of what’s rightfully theirs—it strikes a chord and is too good to pass up. Plus, most of these desperate, bitter and frustrated ex-soldiers don’t have many options.
And its ethical texture is what imbues “Triple Frontier” with a meaningful gravity throughout, not to mention the sobering lacerations that cut deep when thing go horribly wrong. And yet, at the same time, Chandor doesn’t skimp on the craft of action. At the very least, “Triple Frontier” is incredibly nerve-wracking and intense, especially when this team is white-knuckling it out of the hairiest situations (props to the Disasterpeace score and DP Roman Vasyanov). As things grow more desperate, “Triple Frontier” becomes increasingly bruising both emotionally and spiritually and panicky from a cinematic perspective.
Perhaps they’re not asked to make gigantic leaps, but the cast is really good too, especially guys like Hedlund and Hunnam who suffer from limited range as it is, but fit in perfectly here as competent, well-meaning, but emotionally-limited jarheads. Affleck wears the weariness well, as does Pascal as the doubtful one, and Isaac continues to sell audiences on just about anything he does.
Ultimately, “Triple Frontier” is a heist movie about the cost of morally dubious choices, terrible decisions and the inflicted wounds that take the heaviest of tolls. Like “A Most Violent Year,” Chandor applies the Sidney Lumet touch to this genre. Is it as successful? Arguably not, but nevertheless, Chandor crafts a film in that contemplated vein of consequences, with a moral consideration for everything at stake, including the very souls of these soldiers, No one comes out clean. Some men may walk away from the jungle at the end of “Triple Frontier,” but no one truly makes it out unscathed or unbroken. [B+]