Triple Frontier (2019)

Directed by J.C. Chandor

Screen Shot 2019-03-15 at 4.13.15 PM

There’s a lot of testosterone in Triple Frontier, a movie about five former Special Forces operatives who hatch a plan to steal millions of dollars from a drug lord.  The plan seems foolproof, at least as much as they normally do within the context of a movie, taking place in a sparsely populated section of South America at the intersection of three separate countries, and the heist itself goes off nearly without a hitch.

The eventual challenges arise from within, due to individual greed and the expected conflicts between this band of previously tight knit soldiers.  Were they to get out of their own way, all of this would be resolved, but slowly they hemorrhage millions of dollars and sacrifice human lives until eventually they’re only trying to survive.  The good cheer and hoopla is replaced by a Werner Herzog-esque sense of futility, man struggling to remain relevant deep within an inhumane jungle.

It’s that failure within the group that might justify the uneven first act, in which the gang reunites (there are a lot of hugs to go around).  The scenes are loaded with awkward exposition and heavy self-serious dialogue about the sacrifices they’ve made for their country and the lives they’ve taken.  They’ve given everything they had for the flag on their uniform, but what has it left them with?  This time, they figure, they should use their training to benefit themselves, just once.

Despite obvious concerns, they move right along and jump all in on this plan which surely must sound too good to be true.  In the race to get the plot going, the characters feel vapid and hollow, but maybe this quickness to act is deliberate, just so we can experience the subsequent fallout, in which just about everything goes wrong.

In other words, the first act is the story as these five characters themselves would tell it.  They are all individually capable, tough-minded, empathetic and considerate of possible collateral damage, and they stick to their training.  They are their ideal selves, like we’re in the minds of a bunch of old friends at a twenty-year high school reunion taking to the school’s football field to see if they still have it.

The second act, then, has them make all the wrong moves, act selfishly and violently, responding less with considerate thought and tactile precision and instead with poor impulse control and fear.

The goal, it surely seems, is to scrutinize the idea of masculinity presented here.  These are men’s men, you know, they’re action heroes, Call of Duty caricatures, and they’re played by a murderer’s row of tough guy actors (Oscar Isaac, Ben Affleck, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund, Pedro Pascal).  They speak of responsibility, duty and protection before acting only out of self-interests.  It’s some kind of toxic masculinity on full display, with this bunch speaking of all they do that goes unrewarded so that they can justify the crime they want to pull off.  In that regard they aren’t all that likable, and as characters they are meant to be analyzed and critiqued rather than cheered on.  (the movie was once set to be directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who has previously worked with screenwriter Mark Boal on other ‘tough guy’ movies, and Bigelow’s Point Break is a great example of the way she re-contextualizes and pokes holes in masculinity)

And maybe that’s what makes the journey feel a little more empty.  Their quest through the mountains as they make their slow-footed escape isn’t fun, and it wouldn’t need to be so long as we were in their corner, rooting them on.  Their failure isn’t surprising past a certain point, and though there is something engaging in the individual steps of their heist and getaway, the bigger picture is much more predictable.

I guess what this is is just a pretty solid action movie.  I enjoyed those action set pieces, and I’m inclined to write off the other shortcomings of the story and characters because isn’t this what action movies are?  They’re exposition sequences, recognizable faces and a whole lot of stunts.  And that’s fine, right?

It seems to me that movies like this are more forgiven than they might’ve been a decade ago.  I’m coming at this from a limited point of view, based on what kind of internet content I decide to consume and what I hear from others in person, but it seems like genre movies are allowed to fill their plate with cliches and tropes because those are expected in that genre.  If you accept the way these things work, then this was a nice little movie, but if you’re going in expecting something more pristine, unique and original, well then maybe that’s your/my fault.

This movie makes me think of another recent one, Neil Jordan’s Greta.  That is a pretty delightful (I think) stalker-thriller that similarly plays into its genre and those expectations.  There’s nothing all that surprising about what unfolds and how, and yet I found it deliriously fun.  So maybe Triple Frontier can be fun in the same way.  Maybe.  Ah what do I know, the landscape looked pretty breathtaking.

Up Next: Black Mother (2018), Tremors (1990), To the Wonder (2012)

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