Triple Frontier review: a slick but over-familiar action thriller

Oscar Issac and Ben Affleck star in JC Chandor's watchable Netflix actioner – but we've seen a lot of it before...

Another JC Chandor film, another potted take on masculinity in crisis. Margin Call (2011) was about crooked Wall Street traders, All is Lost (2013) concentrated on a solo sailor fighting a losing battle against the ocean and A Most Violent Year (2014) concerned a harassed businessman’s territorial struggles against mobsters and rivals. While these films are all of a fine standard, Jessica Chastain’s performance in the latter aside, there’s rarely a meaningful role for a woman.

Now, Chandor turns his gaze towards South America and what sleazy Carter Burke in Aliens would undoubtedly call “very tough hombres”: a crew of five former US special forces soldiers who plan to steal many millions of dollars from a drug lord in an unnamed country.

The title itself refers to the borders where Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil collide, so one can assume the action to be set in one of these. In real life, the triple frontier is rife with corruption and lacks what one might reasonably term a rigid legal framework, with reports of various terrorist groups using the area as a base. An insight into these groups and the ways in which they operate would perhaps have made for a more original premise.

After a fierce opening sequence outside a shanty town café suspected of harbouring some serious crims, soldier Santiago “Pope” Garcia (Oscar Isaac) uses information from an informant to set up his big heist. He enlists ex-service pals Ben Affleck, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund and Pedro Pascal. All are down on their luck in some capacity but all are needed for the gig because of a generic armed forces talent they possess, be it organisational savvy or piloting ability.

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Affleck gets to work as Tom “Redfly” Davis, the avaricious leader of the operation deep in the jungle even while Pope brings the crew together. Soon, our interchangeable quintet stake out the home of narcotics kingpin Gabriel Martin Lorea (Reynaldo Gallegos). When Lorea’s family hit church one Sunday morning, the gang invade his hacienda and look for the loot. After a carefully organised and deadly assault, the team must transport their heavy cargo of cash across perilous terrain to their faraway ocean pick-up point.

As might be gathered from such a synopsis, Triple Frontier is what posters used to call a fun-filled action romp, but it’s also a somewhat predictable viewing experience we’ve often seen before elsewhere – and to a higher standard. Hunnam humidity in the jungle is far more enticing in James Gray’s masterful The Lost City Of Z. Pascal is best-known on the trail of millionaire drug lords in sizzling TV saga Narcos. As for Isaac’s action hero turn, he can handle automatic weapons as Pope, but that’s child’s play for a man we’ve we’ve seen take on the First Order in two Star Wars films (to date).

Stars aside, why is Chandor using Metallica’s For Whom the Bell Tolls over the opening credits only a decade after Ruben Fleischer did it more effectively in Zombieland? Nothing wrong with serving up viewers a familiar thrash banger, except when it’s already been done better.

In parts of Triple Frontier, as in life, the familiar is not always unwelcome. The afore-mentioned opening café sequence is excellent, a sequence of tension and danger that wouldn’t seem out of place in The Hurt Locker. Incidentally, that Oscar winner was written and produced by Mark Boal, who devised Triple Frontier’s story and co-wrote the script with Chandor.

Elsewhere, the feel of the film is reminiscent of Predator for its story of US soldiers biting off more than can chew in South America. In the final act, Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing and John Huston’s The Treasure Of the Sierra Madre spring to mind most readily, when our would-be heroes find themselves undone by their own greed.

Chandor has made a watchable Friday-night flick with familiar action beats that echo down the years. It’s not one that’ll be remembered with the sort of affection reserved for many of its antecedents, but may hit the spot after a soul-crushing week slaving over spreadsheets for the man. Let’s just hope next time he can include some bigger roles for women and some fresh ideas.

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Triple Frontier is available to stream on Netflix now.


3 out of 5