In a rare moment where it’s not just torquing the plot of Three Kings into a Sicario package, Triple Frontier pauses to let its characters consider a make-or-break point: By stealing a drug kingpin’s ill-gotten gains for themselves, are these U.S. soldiers desecrating their oath to God and country? Their silence gives volume to the contemplation; with nothing to show for it but failed marriages, bum knees and bad raps, what does that oath even mean now?
Such a deafeningly quiet reflection on the oil-and-water relationship of morality, civility and survival has become a calling card for director / co-writer J.C. Chandor — in his stunning financial-industry debut Margin Call, the man-versus-nature opus of All is Lost, and the eternally haunting crime drama A Most Violent Year. It’s probably also why the emotionally charged work of this electric filmmaker, despite considerable acclaim and awards consideration, has collectively grossed $17 million. That’s well under half of what each man in Frontier will clear if they can just get the money over the damn Andes.
Frontier feels like Chandor’s go-big-or-go-home moment, grinding together brain and brawn that, if done well, could blend muscle and meaning in the manner of John Boorman, John Milius or John Huston (in Frontier’s most obvious homage, to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). On paper, the movie seems like a can’t miss proposition. The script is co-written by Oscar winner and (usual) poet laureate of machismo Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker). Oscar Isaac and Ben Affleck front the cast, with supporting roles filled in by Garrett Hedlund, Pedro Pascal and Charlie Hunnam. (Yeah, yeah, I hear you cackling at the suggested intersection of “Hunnam” and “prestige.” Go watch The Lost City of Z.)
Chandor eventually taps into a perversely engrossing explosion of opportunity costs, as the weight of the money becomes as much a literal burden as a figurative one. But all the quien-es-mas-macho meathead stuff is simultaneously beneath and beyond Chandor. One cutaway to a circling helicopter seems there solely to justify the cost of its lease, and here’s a taste of the dialogue’s usual flavor: “I didn’t mean to call your shit bullshit.” We are far from the eloquent, discomforting speech about salesmanship in Violent Year. Plus, for all of second-unit director Guy Norris’s expertly staged battles, no sequence rivals the excitement of that film’s foot chase.
Making its way to Netflix as one of the service’s more prestigious original films, Frontier also disappointingly punches down to that medium’s more disheartening impulses of presentation. (It has been given a theatrical release ahead of its debut on the streaming service, and if you’re going to see it, that’s the way to go.) Sumptuously shot on Super Panavision 70 by cinematographer Roman Vasyanov, Frontier is perhaps the only Netflix offering outside of Roma or Beasts of No Nation to justify the grandeur of theatrical exhibition. Vasyanov packs a visually oppressive wallop with the groaning humidity of a jungle mansion, the jagged, treacherous wind of the Andes, and the weight of modern American malaise, where a dripping faucet Affleck’s character regards with a death stare stands out. (The title references intersecting borders of Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil. The film, which never brings it up, would rather you feel like it means these guys are, like, WAY THE HELL OUT THERE ON THE EDGE OF THE MAP, BROTHER, HIGH-FIVE UP TOP!)
Chandor also triggers several classic-rock landmines he’s deftly avoided before. “Run Through the Jungle” lets you know these guys are, uh, in the jungle so you can stay aware while you’re refreshing Twitter and Insta. If you didn’t think things were strained in their lives, perhaps Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” will clue you in. And because Chandor can’t use “The Ecstasy of Gold,” he bookends his film with bangers by a band that opens its concerts with the Ennio Morricone cue. Yes, like your local classic-rock station, Frontier’s got some mandatory Metallica — along with “featured score percussion” from Lars Ulrich, doing little to enliven a generic score from Disasterpeace, a long way from the insidious squawk of It Follows.
An opening blast of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” emanates from the earbuds on Santiago “Pope” Garcia (Isaac), now a shadowy subcontractor in the South American war on drugs. Getting his Anthony Quinn on in a pleasing way, Isaac offers a believable, breathing manifestation of America’s plausible deniability in lands where it takes action without jurisdiction — porting some of his smooth-operator salesmanship fromViolent Year.
A kingpin named Lorea continually eludes Pope’s grasp, however, so his work largely involves messy raids on middle management that yield only ennui and existential doubt. When Yovanna (Adria Arjona), Pope’s informant / mistress, gives him a credible lead on the whereabout of Lorea and his riches, Pope hatches a plan alongside men from his former military unit — the only ones he truly trusts.
William “Ironhead” Miller (Hunnam) is a recruiter who has recited the same speech hundreds of times to diminishing returns of oorah. (It’s here Frontier spells trouble at the outset, Hunnam again bumbling his way through Hollywood’s laziest, most annoying American accent in a speech about violence as a biological imperative. Yes, William going through the motions is part of the point, but Hunnam brings all the energy of a day player reading sides for a gig he knows he won’t get. There’s no sense William ever believed these words and Hunnam making the words his own seems not only off the table but in another conference room at another building.)
Francisco “Catfish” Morales (Pascal) is a pilot grounded by his penchant for cocaine. William’s brother Ben (Hedlund) lacks a cool nickname, but he’s an MMA fighter with a more sensitive streak than you’d expect. (Casting Hedlund and Hunnam as brothers feels like a cheeky capitulation to audiences who regularly confuse them for the same person.)
Once the group’s captain, Tom “Redfly” Davis (Affleck) is now its emotionally lowest man — living off beer and pickles in his garage, on the outs with his wife and daughters, pathologically incapable of selling that home with the dripping faucet. Affleck stoically nails the resentment simmering underneath this sad sack’s skin, with the chef’s-kiss symbolism of asking this particular actor to play a guy whose frantic scramble for a few dollars more only results in ruin. (He did do a movie called Paycheck, after all.)
Pope lures his pals with a $17,000 payday for a consult, then reels them in with the intel of $75 million stashed in Lorea’s mansion. If they can make it look like a rival has robbed Lorea, the quintet can launder the money overseas, then drib and drab respective cuts through a “corporate” paycheck each year. “The only thing that makes me feel better is when I put a gun in my hand, so I guess that’s what I’ll do,” Tom says, more or less making the decision for the rest of the men.
The resultant raid is stuffed with expository details and oh-shit pivots that professionals like these guys would discuss well before they’re on the scene. And when the time comes to potentially cut bait on a good deal of cash, you’ll do the math (even if they don’t) and wonder if this is just some thinly veiled metaphor for Netflix execs feeling like they have to burn through capital to feed the content beast. By then, these five paupers aren’t just dancing with the devil but having “full-blown intercourse” with him, as per a line you just can’t believe Chandor could have written. (Boal? Maybe.)
Ultimately, Triple Frontier sports more of a hard-on for bullets than any honest examination of brutality, as both men have done before, and even then it’s at half-mast. What could’ve become A Simple Plan on HGH devolves into another generic action movie where you anticipate the plan’s precise spin-sideways moment and wonder who will make it out alive. Depending on your mileage, one late moment will feel either like a profound meditation on the meaningless of material things … or just a recycled joke from Cliffhanger. At least no one can say it’s not loud enough to keep you awake.