With this guys-on-a-mission-blowout, Netflix proves it can grind out generic action as well as the next Hollywood formula hacks. Triple Frontier — which Netflix will release in theaters for five minutes (OK, for seven days) before streaming to its nearly 140 million subscribers on March 13th — involves a handful of rogue ex-military types who decide to rob a drug cartel. That means the bad guys are really bad and nobody cares how violently they die. Our inglorious bastards, on the other hand, are patriots with big hearts momentarily sidetracked by greed. The script is so soft-bellied I blinked with I saw Mark Boal listed as a screenwriter. Boal who worked with director Kathryn Bigelow on Oscar-touched Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, once intended to collaborate with Bigelow again on Triple Frontier, a concept that once caught the interest of such A-listers as Tom Hanks, Johnny Depp, Will Smith, Tom Hardy, Mark Wahlberg, Channing Tatum and Mahershala Ali. Somewhere along the road of development hell, the movie settled for delivering standard-issue jolts for jocks.
Not that there’s anything (too) wrong with that. Triple Frontier is the kind of adrenaline-fueled B-movie that goes down well with beer and pizza and a Netflix subscription (Roma it is not). You’d expect more given the potent track record of director J.C. Chandor (All Is Lost, Margin Call, A Most Violent Year). But Chandor, who made some audience-friendly tweeks to Boal’s script, hasn’t lost his knack for hot-wired suspense. And his actors come ready to play. Oscar Isaac takes the pivotal role of Pope, a special-forces operative based near the triple frontier between Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil. With the help of a Yovana (Adria Arjona), the sexy informant he’s sleeping with (a cliché that should have been resisted and wasn’t), learns that the cartel kingpin Loria (Reynaldo Gallegos) is holed up in the jungle in a house that is literally his safe (he’s stashed millions in its walls).
Pope sees this info as an opportunity to strike. Back in the states, he lines up his team, beginning with Redfly (Ben Affleck), a divorced dad reduced to selling condos. Affleck — looking winded either by circumstances or the knowledge that they movie is never going to the next level — gives off an air of tired resignation that works for the role. Redfly is reluctant to sign on for the heist until he’s reminded that the army has set him adrift after 17 years of service (“They take your best years, then spit you out”). OK, then. You feel Redfly’s inner conflict.
The other actors are left with barely one note to play. As Ironhead, Charlie Hunnam is stuck doing PR for the military. And his brother Ben, the only character who doesn’t get a nickname, Garrett Hedlund busies himself with cage fighting until Pope’s plan gives him a new goal. Pedro Pascal puts the most livewire energy into his role as Catfish, a pilot grounded on a coke rap. The great thing about heists is that no one asks for ID.
And so they’re off. Chandor stages the jungle-house robbery with solid efficiency and goes beyond that into genuine thrills when the aging boys cram into a helicopter with a huge cargo bag stuffed with $250 million dangling underneath and threatening to drag the men to their deaths as the chopper huffs and puffs to climb over the Andes. For sheer, visceral excitement, that’s the scene to beat in Triple Frontier.
The rest involves the team trying to haul what’s left of their loot over the mountains on foot to a beach where maybe a rescue boat will actually show up. And the guys must make their perilous journey without getting killed or killing each other. It’s the old greed metaphor that worked like gangbusters in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but peters out here through a sorry lack of dramatic momentum. Worse, the script keeps insisting that we see these guys as misguided sweethearts who pine for the days when they wore an American flag on their uniform and did things the right way. You could go deaf from the wrong notes Triple Frontier keeps on ringing. The movie gets a pass as mindless escapism but its attempt to sell itself as something deeper is beyond redemption.