Why 'Triple Frontier' Is Better Than the Average Netflix Action Movie – Men's Health
The debate over Netflix Original Movies and their relationship to the traditional theatrical experience is heating up again, this time over filmmaker Steven Spielberg’s suggestion that Netflix movies fulfill certain theatrical-release qualifications in order to be eligible for Academy Awards. Though the debate is worth having—and obviously affects tony Netflix productions like Roma and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs—the truth is, the vast majority of Netflix Originals aren’t really intended as big-screen endeavors. The company gives voice to plenty of worthy filmmakers, including talented minority directors who haven’t been given a fair shake by the studio system. It also gives home to a lot of movies that feel just fine half-watched on the couch while periodically glancing at your phone.
Typically, Netflix’s (so far limited) forays into theatrical releases serve primarily to signal which of their movies they consider major awards contenders (or which of their filmmakers simply insist on some manner of theatrical availability). In that respect, their new movie Triple Frontier is neither here nor there. It’s receiving a limited and exclusive theatrical release starting today, for one week before it arrives on Netflix on March 13th. It’s not an awards play, nor is it a low-budget quickie. It’s a serious but not especially rigorous dramatic thriller aimed at adults, with a bunch of familiar faces, including a couple of real movie stars—exactly the kind of movie big studios used to make with a lot more frequency. In fact, Netflix took over the film from Paramount after several false starts that cycled through a variety of different stars.
The stars this version lands on are Ben Affleck and Oscar Isaac, playing two members of a tight-knit group—former Special Forces operatives who have scattered after the end of their military careers. Santiago (Isaac) arranges a reunion when, through a contract job in South America, he discovers that the group could assassinate a powerful drug lord and make off with a chunk of his massive fortune. He frames it for his buddies as a mission where they perform a net good, but finally get paid for it; it’s not an ineffective pitch, especially given that we first see Tom (Affleck) unsuccessfully attempting to sell a crummy condo, civilian life not exactly agreeing with him. Ben (Garrett Hedlund) makes a living as a low-rent ultimate fighter, while his brother William (Charlie Hunnam) goes around giving do-it-for-your-country pep talks to young military recruits. Francisco (Pedro Pascal) has a hard time finding work after a drug arrest. Though some of the group is reluctant to pick their guns back up and head into the jungle, they all recognize that a paycheck gig may be long overdue.
The screenplay, by Mark Boal (Zero Dark Thirty) and director J.C. Chandor (All Is Lost; A Most Violent Year) foregrounds financial motivation, but in a manful, relatively uncomplicated way. Triple Frontier isn’t exactly a deep dive, psychologically, and though it splices the men-on-a-mission military thriller with the mechanics of a heist movie, it’s not as adventurous in its genre riffing as, say, Steve McQueen’s Widows, from last fall.
The five lead actors have an easy enough chemistry—it’s about time someone cast wandering It Boys Hedlund and Hunnam as brothers!—but few of the characterizations have much detail. There’s the Honorable Soldier, the Wilder Soldier, the Pragmatic Soldier and, in the movie’s most vivid portraiture, Affleck as the Divorced Dad Soldier. Tom has evidently tried harder than any of the others at re-assimilating into normal civilian life, and Chandor gives his failures (living in his ex’s garage, sipping beer while driving his teenage daughter around, being a terrible realtor) more screen time to sting and linger. Affleck, often strongest in character-actor mode, gives a sturdy, low-vanity performance.
Ultimately, Tom’s story just adds a few grace notes to the movie’s exposition. Most of Triple Frontier is dedicated to the heist and its aftermath, giving Chandor a chance to indulge his genre skills. Both All Is Lost and A Most Violent Year had genre elements, and might have even been more convincing as methodically paced thrillers than as drama. Triple Frontier moves more quickly, but it has plenty of the deep-black shadows that Chandor favored in Violent Year. The few who see it on a big screen will get their money’s worth, visually speaking. When the team sneaks into the drug dealer’s jungle mansion, the tension is impressively sustained, even in moments that aren’t calibrated for maximum suspense.
In a lot of heist movies, that tension derives from whether the criminals will be able to get away with their thievery, and improvise their way out of any unanticipated tight corners. Triple Frontier doesn’t bathe in gloom, but Chandor creates enough unease that the suspense comes more from how and when things will go wrong, not whether or not they’ll go right. In its final stretch, the movie turns into more of a survival story with touches of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It’s compelling, and more than a little old-fashioned, which is sometimes a relief; these days, movies like Triple Frontier are more often made by Peter Berg starring Mark Wahlberg (who was attached to this one at one point), and manage to be flashier, nastier, and more solemnly patriotic all at once.
There’s some stoicism in Triple Frontier, too; it’s not exactly a romp, nor is it particularly thought-provoking beyond its observation that veterans are often left in precarious and unfair financial situations. As it turns out, Netflix has swooped in and rescued a more retro form of casual couch-watching: A movie that, if not for its relatively current cast, could have manifested directly onto TNT on a Sunday afternoon sometime in 2002.
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