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A vigorous attempt at a contemporary take on a The Treasure of the Sierra Madre-like yarn comes up a bit short in Triple Frontier. J.C. Chandor’s fourth feature, after the estimable trio of Margin Call, All Is Lost and A Most Violent Year, shoves you viscerally into the world of some U.S. special forces veterans who, with little to show for their lives other than buff bods, try to pull off a hugely profitable heist of a South American drug lord’s ill-gotten gains. Unsurprisingly, things do not go entirely as planned. Despite the heavy dose of action and numerous tense situations, this Netflix offering has trouble staying in high gear once it gets there and the characterizations remain one- dimensional — the men all speak exactly the same way. Limited one-week theatrical runs will precede a March 13 bow on Netflix.
At the outset, you’ve got to feel for these guys. Mostly pushing 40 or beyond, these tough survivors have muscles and memories but little else to show for their 17 years of service, and certainly not any money in the bank. The oldest of them, “Redfly” (Ben Affleck), is in a deep funk with two families to support and no income. As he bluntly puts it, “They take your best years, then spit you out.”
Not much better off, although perhaps slightly less bothered by it, are military instructor “Ironhead” (Charlie Hunnam) — most of these guys have nicknames — and cage fighter Ben (Garrett Hedlund). And then there’s “Pope” Garcia (Oscar Isaac) and “Catfish” (Pedro Pascal), two smart vets who have more than done their bit and now see a way to cash in big. And, yes, this is a ridiculously good-looking bunch of guys, all in fine shape and with excellent hair, which mostly stays neatly cut and groomed throughout the entire adventure. Their contact and enabler, Yovanna (Adria Arjona), is a head-turner as well.
Right off the bat, in an impressively staged opening sequence set in a hilly South American town, you can feel Chandor’s ambition to take you somewhere you’ve probably never been before (Colombia, Oahu and Mammoth served as the actual shooting sites). Sure, there’s some of this in Narcos and other south-of-the-border drug shows, but the elaborate set pieces in towns and, later, the jungle, above the timberline in the Andes and then in a spectacular coastal setting provide massively scenic milieux across which to spread the rugged action.
The brains behind the plan is Pope, first seen in an exciting opening commando raid in a hilly favela with a lot of steep steps. Pope is tipped off by Yovanna regarding the whereabouts of a drug lord’s huge stash of cash and, despite his buddies’ solemn military vow not to profit from their pains, Pope doesn’t have too much trouble convincing them that this is their one shot at turning their lives around; if he, the most righteous and upstanding of them all, is game for this, they’re in.
The operation is tense, the payoff beyond their wildest dreams. Hidden behind the walls of a lavish home in a dense jungle, the cash proves to be a gift that just keeps on giving — tens of millions of dollars of it, far more than they can pack up and make off with in their narrow window of time. Woody Allen used the title for his first feature 50 years ago, but Take the Money and Run would have suited this film as well, as that is exactly what the gang of thieves does here.
At this point, where can this go but south? You know these guys aren’t going to be able to just take their loot to some tropical island and live out a fantasy of booze and babes for the rest of their lives, nor will they be settling down and investing wisely. No, there’s clearly nothing but trouble in store, a big price to pay for a big haul, and of course that’s the story of the second act of Chandor’s original but not entirely fresh drama.
The landscapes the men must cross to make good on their escape are more than formidable. Pope has arranged for a huge Russian helicopter to take them over the Andes, but all the extra bags are too much for them to make it over the 11,000-foot pass, which occasions desperate measures and a truly eye-popping action sequence. There are mountains to be traversed, treacherous villagers to be dealt with and many miles to go before they sleep, if, indeed, that day will ever come. Reverberations from Erich von Stroheim’s classic Greed increasingly pulse through this rugged yarn of king-sized dreams and miserable suffering, which is studded with agonizing moments at which the men must make instantaneous decisions between trying to hold on to some of their loot or escaping the peril of their immediate situations.
For all of the story’s great drama and periodic intensity, however, the yarn never really clicks into top gear and stays there. More individual characterization at the outset would have helped. Affleck’s Redfly is alone among the men to be favored with a bit of backstory, and even then it’s not much. Isaac’s Pope is clearly the smartest one of the outfit and we meet him first, so he, above all, should have been profiled with rather more depth. Chandor has proved his skill at character writing and dialogue in his previous film; here, he clearly sought to establish some action bona fides, but another screenplay pass with attention to more character detailing would have been welcome.
All the same, there are numerous startling moments that hit like punches to the stomach; these men, whose military careers have no doubt been marked by life-or-death decisions that had to be made in an instant, are put to the test time and again, the results of their decisions inevitably agonizing no matter what. This story creates a trail of such moments, along with increasing incriminations, finger-pointing and all other manifestations of fallings-out.
As a writer, Chandor is quite drawn to investigating the relationship of (mostly) men to their money and the great tension its allure and handling create. Margin Call focused on an intense 24-hour period at an investment firm during a crisis, while A Most Dangerous Year centered on a family business during an especially bad economic moment. In Triple Frontier, the issue is ill-gotten gains and how to lose them.
Written by Mark Boal in 2010 for Kathryn Bigelow to direct, the film was originally to star Tom Hanks and Johnny Depp, then Tom Hardy and Channing Tatum.
Opens: Wednesday (theatrical), March 13 (Netflix)
Production companies: Netflix, Atlas Entertainment
Cast: Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund, Pedro Pascal, Adria Arjona
Director: J.C. Chandor
Screenwriters: Mark Boal, J.C. Chandor, story by Mark Boal
Producers: Charles Roven, Alex Gartner, Andy Horwitz, Neal Dodson
Executive producers: Thomas Hayslip, Anna Gerb, Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal
Director of photography: Roman Vasyanov
Production designer: Greg Berry
Costume designer: Marlene Stewart
Editor: Ron Patane
Casting: Katie Doyle, Marisol Roncali, Mary Vernieu
Rated R, 127 minutes
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