J.C. Chandor is a gifted anomaly, a writer-director of reality-oriented drama who, until now, has made just three features: the high-finance meltdown thriller “Margin Call” (2011), the Robert-Redford-stranded-at-sea solo adventure “All Is Lost” (2013), and the good-man-gone-bad business/crime tragedy “A Most Violent Year” (2014). Each Chandor film, to me, has been better than the one before it, yet as commercial propositions they’ve occupied the same not-so-sweet zone of utter box-office indifference. (“Margin Call” made $5.3 million domestic, “All Is Lost” made $6.2 million, and “A Most Violent Year” made $5.7 million.) Clearly, the time has come for a Chandor change-up. So what could be a more perfect move for him than channeling his furrowed-brow impulses into an unabashed genre film?
“Triple Frontier,” which Chandor made for Netflix (it will drop there on March 13 after opening in select theaters for a week), wants to be a thinking person’s action thriller about drug money, a South American jungle heist so crazy-daring it almost makes sense, and a cadre of ex-military special-forces jocks who come together out of brotherly love for each other but mostly out of their hellbent desire to make a killing. On paper, at least, you could call it a good movie. (Sort of. Part of what’s on paper is the script, which in this case is so thin that the paper barely has two sides.)
As a Chandor fan from day one, I was rooting for “Triple Frontier,” yearning for it to be the sort of heart-in-the-throat, thrills-for-the-soul morality play it clearly wants to be. The film’s pedigree is impressive: The project was generated, a number of years ago, by the prestige team of Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal (they are both listed as producers, and Boal is the co-screenwriter, along with Chandor).
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Yet I’m sorry, there’s a dullness at the core of “Triple Frontier.” We’ve seen these sorts of situations once too often, done tighter and better, with more surprise. And though Chandor has assembled an ace cast of aging machos, they’re working with stale crumbs of dialogue. The movie made me wish I was watching either a truly heady thriller (which this is not) or a zippier version of “The Expendables.” “Triple Frontier” falls into the canyon in between. It’s not good art, but it’s not crackerjack entertainment either. It’s another Netflix movie, and since this one actually has some abstract “craft,” I expect that people will do cartwheels over it that it doesn’t deserve.
The movie’s first hour, before it gets into life and death and greed in the wilderness, should draw us in on a human level, but that’s what it fails to do. Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, and the others are all playing Johnny One-Notes; so is Reynaldo Gallegas as the drug lord. (I can hardly remember an instance when a criminal this powerful was portrayed this sketchily.) Isaac’s Santiago “Pope” Garcia is the mover and shaker, a freelance operative who’s ensconced in South America, where he works with local law enforcement and has an informant, Yovana (Adria Arjona), who’s connected to the region’s biggest drug lord. She and Santiago look like they’re on the verge of a romantic liaison, and the fact that the movie doesn’t quite go there is supposed to be a sign of its manly anti-sentimentality. This is a drama about grittier things.
Like the fact that none of these 40ish dudes can make it on their pensions, and they feel screwed over — by the government, by the military — in the new America. That’s a Chandorian theme (“Margin Call” was a fictional gloss on the Lehman Brothers implosion), but in this case the film’s topicality is strictly token. There’s little texture to the lives presented, starting with Affleck’s Tom “Redfly” Davis, a beefy divorced dad who is struggling to maintain a relationship with his teenage daughter and barely has the funds to make a go of it. He’s the token filled-in figure, but there’s no detail to his dilemma; it’s all sullen wisecracks from the heartland. Affleck, though, does get to play the film’s one archetypal stab at a character arc: He starts off a “nice guy” but turns into the ruthless bastard he always was. And there’s the film’s moral lesson. Don’t be like that.
In the early scenes, when Santiago seeks out his old cronies, including Affleck’s Redfly, the military PR booster William “Ironhead” Miller (Charlie Hunnam), plus Ben Miller (Garrett Hedlund) and Francisco “Catfish” Morales (Pedro Pascal), he’s like Danny Ocean gathering up his crew, all to make a proposition: What if they journeyed down to the home of Lorea, the drug lord, without any official military or police links, and staked out his jungle compound, where he keeps his cash, and waited for the right moment, and went in and stole it all?
My first thought, on hearing this plan, was: Wouldn’t a drug lord launder his money and keep it in, you know, banks? Around the world? But “Triple Frontier” often seems caught between the way things work today and a kind of 1980s dream of underworld excess. Our boys go down and stake out the house, which is protected by a tiny handful of security guards, and once they get inside, the money…well, it’s squirreled away in a very clever place. How much is there? Dr. Evil might call it a hundred billion dollars. Actually, it’s more like $250 million, but that’s enough that hauling it away becomes the principal dramatic conflict of the movie.
How do you move $250 million in cash? You pack it into duffel bags, maybe 100 or 150 of them, and drag them through the jungle. And when the big chunky helicopter arrives that’s supposed to ferry the men and the money over the Andes, and the characters discuss the fact that the cash is too heavy for safety reasons, you’d think that someone would make an executive decision and say, “Okay, we’re going to leave $75 million on the ground and take the rest.” But no. They take it all. Dooming themselves to play out a cut-rate Netflix version of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”
The entire first hour of “Triple Frontier” turns out to be the set-up. The second hour is the red-meat existential drama of greed and survival, starting with when the men land near a cocaine farm (the crash-landing itself is thrilling) and have to buy their way out of a jam. At each turn, they relinquish cash to survive. But are they willing to let go of it? It’s all presented as a Grand Metaphor, but that’s more or less the only thing driving the movie, which is why it turns plodding. Chasing the money becomes a way of embracing death; giving up the money becomes a way of embracing life. J.C. Chandor had the right impulse in tackling an ambitious thriller like this one, but the next time he wants to make a genre film that has something to say, he’d do well to invest more ingenuity in the story. Drama is priceless. Lessons come cheap.