Kathryn Bigelow was originally attached to direct “Triple Frontier,” but it was destined to land with J.C. Chandor. In his decade of output, the filmmaker has assembled a concise filmography loaded with desperate survivalists of all stripes: It began with capitalist investors on the brink of the 2008 financial crisis in “Margin Call,” who struggle to right a sinking ship with the same world-weariness that Robert Redford brings to his own damaged vessel in “All Is Lost,” and continued with the oil salesman surrounded by shady business deals in “A Most Violent Year.”
For “Triple Frontier,” Chandor’s penchant for morally ambiguous survivors has been boiled down to familiar terms: Equal parts “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” and “Sorcerer” with a military makeover, the movie consolidates the themes of his earlier work into a dreary heist drama with more pedestrian results. As rough-hewn veterans make their way across mountainous terrain with millions of dollars in loot, “Triple Frontier” lands a handful of thrilling sequences in a sea of familiar riffs on greed, masculinity, and the lingering traumas of war.
But first, the movie announces itself in action terms, as vigilante-for-hire Santiago (Oscar Isaac, re-teaming with his “A Most Violent Year” director) leads a bullet-fueled showdown against the forces of a clandestine drug lord in South America. Isaac, who may soon beat Tom Cruise’s record for number of minutes sprinting on-screen, chases a key source on foot across tight corridors and up a hillside as Chandor’s camera speeds along. The swift introduction suggests the starting point for a story that won’t slow down; instead, “Triple Frontier” takes a breather.
Once Santiago discovers that his target is hiding out in the jungle with a houseful of money, he concocts a scheme to round up his old army buddies to take out the mark and steal his fortune in one fell swoop. The trickiest recruit is Tom (Ben Affleck, sleepier than ever), a mopey veteran who has sagged into a lame real estate routine and doesn’t have much drive for one last job. The others — William (Charlie Hunnam), Ben (Garrett Hedlund), and Francisco (Pedro Pascal) — take less convincing, and show few traits to distinguish each other from the model of gruff, shoot-first-ask-questions-later mold from which they all hail. As the quintet gears up for an ambitious mission, “Triple Frontier” settle into more of a two-hander, as the overly idealistic Santiago displays outrageous confidence about their plan, and the stone-faced Tom just wants to get it over with.
These are tough, broken men, so well-trained to bottle up their emotions that they all default to the same inscrutable glare. That’s “the price of being a warrior,” as one of them puts it early on, and about as much insight as the movie can muster before it moves forward. While “Triple Frontier” is remarkably talky for such a high-stakes action-thriller, it lacks the depth — or sufficient backstory — to make its characters’ risky agenda all that tangible. Fortunately, “Triple Frontier” doesn’t lack for forward momentum once the group mobilizes, and the movie maintains a sufficient degree of thrills as each stage of the plan hits a new snag.
Liberated by a sizable Netflix budget and dazzling outdoor scenery, Chandor makes the most of it, careening from a claustrophobic showdown in the jungle to a dramatic helicopter crash in the middle of the mountains and a trepidatious cliffside hike with unruly mules. The complex settings often upstage the central conundrum, and some of the more violent twists materialize out of nowhere and in blunt terms, but “Triple Frontier” collects a dazzling array of images (in tandem with Disasterpiece’s ominous score) that keep the landscape at the center of the story.
The final act of “Triple Frontier” unfolds in the rocky terrain of the Andes and brings the full pathetic gamble into focus. Once the movie settles into an unwieldy blend of “Cliffhanger” and “Alive,” the futility of the quest becomes a punchline hiding in plain sight: Tom, who thought the notion of battling the elements and lawless land with giant bags of cash would be a good idea, has been leading the exact suicide mission his peers expected from the start. Isaac excels at exhibiting the frustrations of a man so confident that the prospects of defeat turn him into a moody teenager who storms off (at least until one of his peers gives him a pep talk). The movie could have used more insights into this striking conflict between unfettered expression and psychological armor.
The most appealing moments in “Triple Frontier” arrive in the aftermath of this realization, as the cocky leader comes to terms with his miscalculation, and recognizes the hubris behind it. It’s not enough to rescue the movie from its grim, procedural-style pacing or thin characterizations, but Chandor eventually manages to reel the material into its strongest conceit. The finale puts the whole outrageous gamble in a new context, repudiating the trope that getting away with the heist is the only true metric for success. In one telling scene, the men find themselves contending with the cold darkness of the mountains at night, and gleefully toss a briefcase full of cash into their fire. At the end of the day, even these cold-hearted men want to live another day, if only to see if they can get away with it.
“Triple Frontier” premieres theatrically on March 8, 2019 followed by a global release on Netflix on March 13, 2019.