Film Review: ‘Triple Frontier’

J.C. Chandor's drama about five ex-military pals who reunite to rip off a drug lord is an action thriller that turns into a plodding parable of greed.

J.C. Chandor
Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund, Pedro Pascal, Adria Arjona, Reynaldo Gallegos, Sheila Vand, Madeline Wary.
Release Date:
Mar 6, 2019

Official Site: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1488606/

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).

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Triple Frontier'

Reviewed at Dolby 88, New York, Feb. 26, 2019. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 125 MIN.

Production: A Netflix release of an Atlas Entertainment production. Producers: Neal Dodson, Alex Gartner, Andy Horwitz, Charles Roven. Executive producers: Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal, Andrés Calderón, Anna Gerb, Thomas Hayslip.

Crew: Director: J.C. Chandor. Screenplay: Mark Boal, J.C. Chandor. Camera (color, widescreen): Roman Vasyanov. Editor: Ron Patane. Music: Disasterpeace.

With: Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund, Pedro Pascal, Adria Arjona, Reynaldo Gallegos, Sheila Vand, Madeline Wary.

More Film

  • Amanda Awards

    ‘Out Stealing Horses’ Tops Norway’s 2019 Amanda Awards

    HAUGESUND, Norway —  Hans Petter Moland’s sweeping literary adaptation “Out Stealing Horses” put in a dominant showing at Norway’s Amanda Awards on Saturday night, placing first with a collected five awards, including best Norwegian film. Celebrating its 35th edition this year, the Norwegian industry’s top film prize helped kick off the Haugesund Film Festival and [...]

  • Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by

    Richard Williams, 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' Animator, Dies at 86

    Renowned animator Richard Williams, best known for his work on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” died Friday at his home in Bristol, England, Variety has confirmed. He was 86. Williams was a distinguished animator, director, producer, author and teacher whose work has garnered three Oscars and three BAFTA Awards. In addition to his groundbreaking work as [...]

  • Instinct

    Locarno Film Review: 'Instinct'

    Now that “Game of Thrones” has finally reached its conclusion, releasing its gifted international ensemble into the casting wilds, will Hollywood remember just what it has in Carice van Houten? It’s not that the statuesque Dutch thesp hasn’t been consistently employed since her startling 2006 breakout in Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book,” or even that she’s [...]

  • Good Boys Movie

    Box Office: 'Good Boys' Eyes Best Original Comedy Opening of 2019

    Universal’s “Good Boys” is surpassing expectations as it heads toward an estimated $20.8 million opening weekend at the domestic box office following $8.3 million in Friday ticket sales. That’s well above earlier estimates which placed the film in the $12 million to $15 million range, marking the first R-rated comedy to open at No. 1 [...]

  • Pedro Costa’s 'Vitalina Varela' Wins at

    Pedro Costa’s 'Vitalina Varela' Triumphs at Locarno Film Festival

    The 72nd Locarno Film Festival drew to a close Saturday with Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa’s dark and detached film “Vitalina Varela” coming away with several awards together with superlatives from segments of the hardcore cinephile crowd, including jury president Catherine Breillat. In announcing the Golden Leopard prize for the film, as well as best actress [...]

  • Vitalina Varela

    Locarno Film Review: 'Vitalina Varela'

    Frequently beautiful compositions and the theatrical use of a fierce kind of artifice have long been the hallmarks of Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa, regarded by a small but influential group of aesthetes as one of the great filmmakers of our era. For those in tune with his vision, the director’s films offer an exciting lesson [...]

  • Notre dame

    Locarno Film Review: 'Notre dame'

    Not to be too cynical about it, but might the recent horrific fire in Paris’ cathedral attract audiences to a film in which the gothic gem plays a major role? It’s likely a wiser marketing strategy than promoting the unrelenting silliness of Valerie Donzelli’s oh-so-kooky comedy “Notre dame,” the writer-director-star’s return to contemporary Paris following [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content