How flexible is human morality? Beyond the explosions, gunfights and moments of delicious tension, Triple Frontier’s greatest success lies in forcing the audience to ask itself that very question.
Netflix movies have been a mixed bag so far. On one hand, I have to give them props for green-lighting projects that Hollywood simply does not have the risk appetite for. But on the other, many of those projects were just plain bad. Triple frontier might just be the best of the lot.
Triple Frontier’s plot follows the lives of five army vets, most of whom have not quite made the transition into civilian life the way one would hope. Oscar Issac’s character “Pope” is the only one that decided to keep using his military skill-set in the private sector. For years he has provided his services as an “adviser” to Brazilian police in the country’s war against drug cartels. In the interest of not spoiling things too much, lets just say he begins to get jaded by the corruption and pointlessness of his mission. This leads him to get in touch with his old buddies and convince them to execute a bold, dangerous and very illegal plan. A plan that (hopefully) leads to the liquidation of a target he has been chasing for three years and also sees him and his team set for life financially.
The cast does a good job here with Issac and Affleck doing most of the heavy lifting. Character progression takes a backseat to the plot though. Of all the major players, Issac is the only one who gets sufficient background to explain his line of thinking. I hasten to add here that for the what the movie is, the characters don’t really require much in terms of background. But if the audience is being subjected to a back-story, it should matter. To me, apart from “Redfly” (Affleck’s character), none of the other guys needed any screen time to explain why they were OK with being in such a morally compromised situation. In other words, when the characters on screen decide to do something that seems “out of character” it should be surprising. Here, it is a toss up. Was character A always like this? Did character B always have a penchant for celebrating before the job was done? Well, both guys had enough screen time in building a back story but it didn’t matter when it came to answering questions of that kind. This is an obvious misstep and takes way from from what is otherwise a tight script.
That said, there are some holes in the plot. Not the least of which is why on earth would a drug lord keep so much cash in his house. “Not trusting the banks” is a pretty thin plot device to iron away that particular wrinkle.
But where ‘Triple Frontier’ excels is in building tension. I was constantly reminded of movies like Sicario and Heat where the action serves to release all the pent up tension in the viewer’s mind. In many ways, this can be more entertaining than a constant serving of on screen explosions a’la Micheal Bay. ‘Triple Frontier’ is the sort of film that makes you grip the armrests without realizing you are doing so. I was watching a special screening of the film with a small group of people and on more that one occasion heard someone shout something on the lines of “OMG just f#$king move!”. Can’t say I wasn’t thinking the same. Director J.C.Chandor nailed this aspect of the film.
Also commendable is how the characters begin to behave once things start going wrong. How the voice of reason is slowly eclipsed by greed. The justifications that bring comfort to one that needs to reconcile with being the “bad guy”. More importantly, how does one try and remain “good” once the decision to be a criminal is taken? As alluded to earlier, I couldn’t help but ask myself what I would have done in the same situation. It is an organic process and paced just right. Not many script writers have the chops to do this and even fewer directors have the skill to pull it off with such precious little screen time. Even if most viewers will leave remembering the tension they felt, to me, it is the uncomfortable questions that I consider the movie’s real triumph. It’s not perfect, not by a long shot, but considering what sort of film this is, it would have been safer not taking the risk.
There are some missed opportunities for sure. I would have loved to see further exploration of how murky it must get for army vets to work for a private security firm. How uncomfortable it must be for someone who kills for country and honor to accept the fact that he is now killing for profit. Not to mention what the rise of PMCs (Private Military Contractors) means as whole. I also cannot help but wonder if an American viewer would see this the same way I do. But the biggest gripe I have is this: For a heist movie, Triple Frontier spends too little time showing the “planning” phase. Boo. Double Boo when you consider how tight the cinematography is. Even a ten minute planning sequence would have likely been something special.
To nitpick further, I’d also state that no aspect of the film (save the building of tension) is exceptional. If broken down to its parts and viewed in isolation, none stands out. It would not be incorrect to say that there is nothing here we haven’t seen before.
Still, unexceptional or not, this is still a very entertaining film. A tense narrative that is buoyed by some solid performances and good use of licensed music. Heck, any flick that uses Metallica’s “For whom the bell tolls” so judiciously automatically gets my respect. As does the cheeky ending which leaves enough room for a follow up without outright leaving the audience with a cliffhanger. I’ll just say it: It’s not winning any Oscars but Triple Frontier still deserves a sequel.
FINAL SCORE: 7.2/10