It’s no secret that Hollywood is experiencing a sea change in its ongoing battle between theatrical versus streaming, waged over the past week by Steven Spielberg and Netflix.
That debate comes into full focus in “Triple Frontier,” on the one hand proving that Netflix is attracting top directors (J.C. Chandor), writers (Mark Boal) and actors (Ben Affleck), while on the other hand presenting a sweeping action-adventure that’s reduced on a small screen.
The story follows five veterans of U.S. Special Forces who reunite to rob a South American drug lord on the “triple frontier” along Peru, Brazil and Colombia. The ringleader is Santiago “Pope” Garcia (Oscar Isaac), whose love interest Yovanna (Adria Arjona) tips him off to heist potential at the compound of cartel boss Lorea (Reynaldo Gallegos). He recruits his old war buddies for one last job — a $75 million payday — until it all crumbles under human greed.
Like Robert Aldrich’s “The Dirty Dozen” (1967) or Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (2009), the film hinges on its macho camaraderie. Numerous Hollywood heavyweights were considered at various stages of development — Tom Hanks, Johnny Depp, Will Smith, Mark Wahlberg, Mahershala Ali — but ultimately we get a roundup of solid character actors.
Leading the pack is Golden Globe winner Oscar Isaac, a native of Guatemala who finally gets to speak Spanish after playing a series of Europeans (“Ex Machina”), New Yorkers (“Inside Llewyn Davis,” “A Most Violent Year,” “Show Me a Hero”) and Intergalactic Rebels (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”). In “Triple Frontier,” he serves as the film’s moral compass, playing referee with each passing scene as his bickering cohorts increasingly lose their scruples.
His biggest headache is Ben Affleck (“Argo”), who plays a struggling real-estate agent with an air of depression. Perhaps this is due to his real-life divorce from Jennifer Garner or his failed superhero experiment in “Batman v. Superman” (2016), but Affleck seems quite detached. At times, it feels like he’s going through the motions, though in a way, that works for the role.
The rest of the bunch is more talented than the roles they’re given to play. Charlie Hunnam (“Sons of Anarchy”) gives motivational speeches to his fellow veterans, Garrett Hedlund (“Mudbound”) dukes it out in MMA cages, and Pedro Pascal (“Narcos”) is a scorned helicopter pilot, but none of their backstories is given enough meat to truly compete with Isaac’s lead.
While the supporting characters are rather one-dimensional, the casting of a Guatemalan (Isaac) and Chilean (Pascal) is an attempt to blunt the Jingoism that haunted such movies decades ago. For a time, the tone presents macho patriots invading immoral jungles, but when the boys become trigger happy, the protagonists quickly turn into anti-heroes.
The soundtrack thus shifts from gung-ho tracks like Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” to home-front longing with Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” plunges into madness with CCR’s “Run Through the Jungle” and outright anti-war protest anthems with Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War.”
The dialogue reflects this, as Isaac tells Affleck, “You’ve been shot five times for your country and you can’t pay off your truck.” Affleck replies, “They take your best years, then spit you out,” while his daughter responds to his “I love you” with a defiant “I miss you.” We’re never quite sure of the mission’s financial backing, other than Isaac being contracted by an ambiguous foreign government with funds funneled through an offshore account in St. John.
Granted, none of that is really important if you’re an action movie junkie — but buyer beware.
The script is essentially a tale of two movies. The first half is a slow-burn action film that shows the contributions of Oscar-winning screenwriter Mark Boal, who revives elements of “The Hurt Locker” (2009) for the opening action sequence and elements of “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012) for a compound raid that recalls Seal Team Six raiding Osama bin Laden’s hideout.
Then, the tone suddenly shifts at the midpoint, as the script’s second half becomes more of a survivalist adventure, warning against greed as the group flees over the Andes. Film buffs will instantly think of John Huston’s “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948), David O. Russell’s “Three Kings” (1999) and Doug Liman’s “American Made” (2017) — all superior works.
Boal’s collaborator Kathryn Bigelow was originally set to direct, but the reins eventually went to Chandor. That’s not a bad thing, as Chandor remains one of the best directors going today, carving out cred in the land of greed and survival with the financial collapse of “Margin Call” (2011), the virtually silent “All is Lost” (2013) and corruption of “A Most Violent Year” (2014).
In “Triple Frontier,” Chandor teams with cinematographer Roman Vasyanov (“End of Watch,” “Fury”) for very realistic action sequences with methodical maneuvers rather than shaky-cam chaos. There’s even an impressive single-take as the commandos climb back in the getaway van as the burning compound grows smaller in the rearview mirror as they drive away.
The problem is that the visual splendor doesn’t match the life-or-death outcomes. Surely characters would not survive some of these events. It might have been more rewarding from a narrative standpoint to have one man die with each mistake — one at the compound, one in a helicopter crash, one during the donkey climb up the Andes, one in a rocky shootout. The result is an uneven script with plot holes that seem implausible for elite military professionals.
In the end, the audience is unclear. Its pacing is too slow to capture the action die hards, but its drama is too basic for the arthouse crowd; its moralizing is too cynical for the patriotic, but its concept is too throwback for the socially progressive. Thus, your level of satisfaction may ultimately depend on whether you watch it at the theater or on your couch.
“I got to see [‘Triple Frontier’] on a big screen with an incredible sound system and that was really amazing to see, but you know, we are living in a very transitional time,” Isaac told the Associated Press. “I think that regardless of the debate … there’s a lot more opportunities to do different kinds of movies and movies that often wouldn’t get financed theatrically.”
“Triple Frontier” isn’t great enough to settle the debate. Going in, you’ll cheer, “I’m glad I can watch it from home!” After it’s over, you’ll shrug, “Well, I’m glad I watched it from home.”