Letterboxd Review: Triple Frontier (2019)

They all look like they are trying to decipher the context of the movie's title, don't they?

I'm honestly quite torn, because while Triple Frontier is a forgettable, rank-and-file modern warfare/heist thriller that does not justify the top-heavy cast or the amount of lavish technical work that went into it, this is also exactly the kind of mid-tier action film that never gets made by the major studios anymore. Why would they? Action movies are for making money, and if there's no action figure and no Coke can to plaster the star's face across, then it's not worth a gigantic mega-conglomerate's time. I've been braying for years that a $40-75 million action film without any merchandise machine or sequel mill attached is the perfect project for streaming services like Netflix to reinvigorate the market, so you'd think I'd be on Triple Frontier's side. For the most part, I'm not.

Don't get me wrong, there's something interesting going on in fits and starts. The American soldiers' sense of betrayal, the erosion of morality in a live firefight, and it's a very interesting choice for the ill-gotten drug money to become more and more of a literal, physical burden on the protagonists the further they sink into an inescapable situation. It has the potential to be a jaded, Apocalypse Now for Gen-X, thinking-person's shoot 'em up with some philosophy attached. But the flaw in that motif is pairing it with the brisk pace of a heist film, and then failing to decide which vibe is going to carry us to credits. It really can't be both, and while the shell-shock of brutal violence and the harrowing psychology of being a warrior without a war to fight is by far the more interesting path, the tactical porn, oorah-oriented bro dialogue, and implausibly invincible killing machines are the things that sell an action movie moment-to-moment.

I finally understand all those times Roger Ebert sneered derisively at a film and proclaimed it to be merely a video game. This movie is almost beat for beat the plot of a contemporary Call of Duty game, with each action set piece acting as the "cinematic moment" of each video game mission. The helicopter. The mansion. The mountain peaks. The midnight truck chase through the jungle. The boat. It's rare that a movie feel this episodic without any existing IP attached. That would be fine, and likely make it a more 'streamable' project, but the more glaring video game comparison is in the rote imitation of genre tropes, the homogeneous characters, and the lack of consequence in the world surrounding them. We meet five slabs of beef, and only one of them approaches three dimensions, and brother you better believe that "Masters of War" and the usual gratuitous Creedence Clearwater Revival tunes follow their chopper into the jungle. The fact that we escape without "Ride of the Valkyries" or "Sympathy for the Devil" blaring at any point is remarkable.

Ben Affleck's character, first introduced as an awkward realtor struggling to support his estranged family, is a stone-cold professional assault team leader right up until he catches sight of gigantic walls made of cash that can change his stalled life. He's the character with the most we can relate to, and he's also the one who changes most prominently throughout the story. All of that really helps sell an Affleck performance that I'd call sleepy if not admittedly soulful. This film was being made during the movie star's most recent fight with his sobriety, his divorce, and the several years he was paid to suffer at the hands of Zack Snyder and the Internet as "Bat-fleck" and eventually "Sad Ben Affleck" when the box office failed to light up. With the context of the actor's struggles, the performance does take on some not-so-accidental realism that--I repeat myself, but it bears repeating--I'm just not sure this was the right movie for such somber choices.

........Why the long face?
Oscar Isaac, as we've seen, can carry a film on his own. This movie feels a little lopsided with him in the second-billed slot, as the role could have been played by any of the others, or by any actor of more limited range than the erstwhile Llewellyn Davis. As a consequence, this is not A Most Violent Year or an Ex Machina performance, but something a lot looser like his Star Wars mode. I also just think Isaac's strengths are wasted on a square-jawed action hero role, especially when he's allowed no humor and no great opportunity for chemistry with his scene partners, apart from a few moments of fraternal affection with Pedro Pascal. It calls to mind how uncharacteristically stoic Will Smith became in corners of Suicide Squad, and how blatantly his star power was being utilized to lend credibility to the movie.

Charlie Hunnam and Garrett Hedlund play brothers, and also the ranger and the tank in this particularly bland tabletop RPG. They are written on-par with Bill Duke and Jesse Ventura in Predator, only without the warmth. I've wanted for years to defend Charlie Hunnam, who is capable of terrific vulnerability and natural emotional escalation. But I can't ignore how his character is written with that thousand-yard stare of the emotionally crippled, and the trauma and raw experience just don't shine through his wooden depiction. I think his character gets shot early on just so he only has to express pain throughout the rest of the film.

"People said the same stuff about me in Reindeer Games, believe me. You'll be just fine."
Man, I'm making this saltier than I intended. For all my barbs, I can't praise the visuals enough. Yeah, it feels like a video game, but the graphics are effing amazing, yo. J.C. Chandor has a knack for showcasing breathtaking landscapes and natural wonders while still remembering to ascribe a mood to them, in order to better convey the tone of the movie as he did in All is Lost. While Triple Frontier might waver on what kind of story it is telling, the gorgeous visuals serve up a very apt metaphor that fits the screenplay's  more visceral ambitions: South America is depicted in all it's untamed scope, from the never-ending rain forest to the snowy peaks of the Andes, and while its beauty is undeniable there is an untouchable deadliness and hostile energy. Often, our team of mercs are shot as pesky ants ambling across terrain that was never meant to see their Kevlar and MREs. And while the violence does not scratch that adolescent itch for something cinematic and bombastic, it's really not supposed to. Chandor uses the precision, enhanced communication, and muscle memory of his characters to inform us of how dispassionate violence is when it becomes routine.

I think I might benefit from a rewatch with all of my expectations tossed out the window. I have a problem with movies that try their hardest to stay ahead of my genre fluency at its own expense. Sometimes, say with the wonderful Sicario, you sign on for a film that delivers all the tense firefights advertised but also has something interesting to say about the circumstances surrounding all the needless violence. Then again, sometimes you sign on for a movie that delivers only the production values and the action novelty and nothing more. That's fine! Hard Target is one of my favorite movies specifically because it has the courage to just be ninety minutes of dumb explosions and such. With Triple Frontier, the dashed expectations of the audience take on the same troublesome heft as the duffle bags full of cash do for the protagonists: it quickly loses its allure when it gets too heavy and impractical to sustain a grip on it.

Rating: ✰✰ 1/2

This review is part of Kyle's Letterboxd profile. Follow him on that platform for additional movie lists and reviews not covered here at the blog, including a ranking of several franchises and excerpts from his book, Cinema Autopsy, which is available on the Amazon Kindle store.
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