The immediately eye catching cast of this latest Netflix original Triple Frontier, twinned with the choice of more than capable director J.C. Chandor (A Most Violent Year, Margin Call) elevates it above many recent Netflix pictures that have been churned out in recent years, from the posters alone. Even more impressively, Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) is on co-writing duties, along with Kathryn Bigelow as executive producer, a shrewdly chosen dream team as far as modern war movies are concerned. But does it live up to its star billing and intriguing premise?
For the first half hour of Triple Frontier, we are methodically introduced to the team that Oscar Isaac’s Santiago ‘Pope’ Garcia is assembling for a covert mission deep in the South American jungle. They’re all obviously ex-army, which is at first an obvious cliche, the group seemingly coming out of retirement for ‘One last job’. However, they defy this stereotype as we soon learn these hardened men are.are no longer soldiers for a reason. They have all committed horrific acts of violence in their military careers and have been dealing with the heavy psychological consequences since. They’re all barely scraping by financially, bitter with the way the US treats its army veterans, so naturally it doesn’t take long to convince the motley crew to join Pope’s scheme. The perilous scheme in question is the robbery of $75 million in cash and the assassination of Gabriel Martin Lorea (Reynaldo Gallegos), one of Mexico’s most dangerous and influential cartel leaders. ‘Pope’ has been chasing the sinister drug lord for years of army service to no avail and decides to go after him one final time, however this time without either military backing or approval.
It is emphasised that this is very much an illegal undercover robbery, not an army mission, and the reluctant troopers know the high stakes, and that nobody will be coming to their rescue if things go wrong. So not unexpectedly, things do go spectacularly wrong. Equipped with quirky middle names from their army days such as ‘Catfish’, ‘Redfly’, ‘Pope’ of course and ‘Ironhead’, the chemistry initially takes a while to warm up, although this is a far more realistic portrayal of how a professional band of brothers would surely interact. There are no wise-cracks or corny one liners to be found here.
Technically it’s an assured piece of filmmaking, the opening scene along with the main mission itself especially are reminiscent of the most intoxicatingly fraught set pieces from Sicario. Pedro Pascal, in familiar territory after his time in Narcos fighting South American Cartels, is excellent along with the mountain-like unit that is Charlie Hunnam, but Ben Affleck and Oscar Isaac steal the show. The glum grimacing performance from Affleck which we’ve become so accustomed to in recent years actually suits this role and their relationship forms the film’s poignant centrepiece.
Triple Frontier succeeds in morphing seamlessly into a survival movie after the initial heist, as the group must make it to the border undetected. The rich scenery and cinematography is crisp and sublime, really playing its part in setting the mood of total bleak isolation as it dwarfs the small team, swallowing them up in every shot. The five mercenaries must brave the treacherous path through the Peruvian Andes and never ending jungles, then replaced by crisp mountain peaks on their way to freedom. None of the troops are glorified in their approach to the mission, they’re a reluctant crew of traumatised renegades. The cast fantastically depict a fragile sense of guilt and deep regret in every move they make, as every kill weighs heavier, and every dollar lost is less to take home to their families.
Yet another unconventional surprise in the plot is the lack of screen time for the supposed ‘villains’, instead focusing on the psychological burden of the job itself and the wrestling match all the men must face with greed, an equally dangerous opponent in this kind of mission. These choices may fail to satisfy some viewers longing for more straightforward cinematic warfare, and whilst some sections of dialogue feel clunky, the terrific cast make most of the lines believable. Momentum and suspense is extremely hard to sustain in this genre and the fact that the main job is so unconventionally early in the film works both ways but this is no doubt a convincing, properly mature heist movie.
Triple Frontier does a lot right technically and sheds thought provoking new light on the genre, it being essentially a more tastefully grown up, less glorified Expendables. It’s undeniably another solid addition to Netflix’s increasingly vast array of original movies, and stands out from many cringe worthy modern action romps.
The final third is arguably slightly anticlimactic, yet also refreshingly unconventional in its final twist and payoff. Despite the nosedive towards the end, there is no shortage of superbly executed action, and the the suspense built up during the various raids and ensuing escape are painstakingly tense to watch. Overall a slightly sombre yet refreshing new take on the military heist film, which challenges tired tropes and cliches of more vulgar glamorised shootout movies.
Words by Ed Budds