If Triple Frontier, the new star-studded thriller from Netflix, should start to feel too self-serious, remember this: the film features Charlie Hunnam and Garrett Hedlund, aka those two guys you have always mistaken for each other, as brothers, as well as (the film’s pièce de résistance) sad Ben Affleck as sad Ben Affleck.
On its surface, the film from director J.C. Chandor (A Most Violent Year, All Is Lost) would adhere to the classic “macho movie” rulebook. Its leads — Affleck, Hunnam, Hedlund, Oscar Isaac, and Pedro Pascal — are all the stereotypically manliest of men, and their rogue mission to give the middle finger to both the system and to a prosperous drug lord seems like the only other necessary ingredient for your typical Den of Thieves or Expendables-esque romp through the unnamed but un-American jungle. Boys will be boys, right?
To a certain extent, yes, but Chandor — working from a script co-written with Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker) — digs a little deeper. Triple Frontier doesn’t entirely manage to transcend the traps of action movie, but there’s more to it than meets the eye.
This particular A-team’s Hannibal is Santiago “Pope” Garcia (Isaac). When an informant gets him a lead on where to find a drug lord who’s been evading him for years, Garcia rounds up his old Delta Force buddies for one last job, under the purview of the Colombian government. There’s Tom “Redfly” Davis (Affleck), now a realtor and divorcee; William “Ironhead” (Hunnam) and Ben Miller (Hedlund), a motivational speaker and MMA fighter pair of brothers; and Francisco “Catfish” Morales (Pascal), a pilot now grounded for doing drugs. All of them have cool nicknames, all of them are built like brick houses, and, whether they like it or not, all of them know they’re only good for one thing: soldiering.
Though it takes some doing, Pope sells them on the mission by stressing the fact that they’re owed more for their service to their country than the pennies they’ve got. With that in mind, each man succumbs to the promise of a payout, even after Pope admits that it’s actually a black flag operation — there’s no jurisdiction behind them except their own. All of the money they seize will be theirs.
Naturally, things go wrong, but what would usually be framed as a tale of perseverance and brotherhood instead turns into one of avarice. Or at least it does for a while. The story’s messiness — which is what makes it so compelling — gets tidied up towards the end in a way that feels less organic and more out of fear that the characters’ greed and stubbornness might make them too unsympathetic.
Broadly speaking, it should, but this is the rare instance in which it instead makes them more interesting. That mercenary quality and the uneasy testiness it engenders within the team is more interesting than a retread of the good ol’ boys dynamic that characterizes most other action films like The A-Team or the recent Predator, and it also — however briefly — sets Triple Frontier on the path to being the last great bro-action movie.
It’s not that the film itself is a pinnacle of cinema, though Chandor certainly has an eye for style. Rather, Triple Frontier often feels like more of a takedown of the genre it’s in than just another entry into it. Affleck’s performance is the film’s greatest asset in this respect; it’s easiest to track the way that the money goes to Tom’s head, and the way that hunger has nothing to do with the camaraderie that’s supposed to bind the team together. The others recognize that, especially once the balance between how many bullets they have to face and how many bucks they can escape with becomes more and more of a pressing issue, and Tom remains focused on the money throughout it all.
There’s a marvelous nastiness to Tom (that’s only mildly counterbalanced by how clearly he’s struggling to be a good father and husband) that Affleck carries off marvelously. His insistence that the impossible will be possible for the sake of a bigger payout isn’t unique to this movie; what is unique is the agitation it immediately provokes in his teammates, and the overhanging sense of dread that he might be wrong.
Though Triple Frontier loses steam (and loses characters) as the story winds to a conclusion that feels too self-congratulatory for how pointedly messy its beginning is, it’s still fun. The ideas that it touches on — that soldiers are treated as expendable despite the burden they’re forced to shoulder, that it feeds into difficulty readjusting to civilian life — give the story a little more dimension, allowing the characters to be more than straightforward action heroes, and possibly even the villains in their own story.
Complexity makes the near-complete absence of women in the story (the only female character is Pope’s informant, and is the constant subject of romantic speculation) as well as the gratuitous needle-drops (“Run Through the Jungle,” “The Chain,” etc.) forgivable. There’s a point of reckoning coming for the action movie genre, for the boys’ club and “one last job” stories of cinema. Triple Frontier toes the line of being the genre’s Unforgiven; it just can’t quite bring it all the way home.