Netflix's New Military Heist Thriller 'Triple Frontier' Is Deeper Than It Looks

triple frontier
Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix
Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix

Filmmaker Christopher McQuarrie, the Oscar-winning writer behind The Usual Suspects and the two most recent gravity-defying entries in the Mission: Impossible series, has a story he likes to tell about his directorial debut, the 2000 crime thriller The Way of the Gun. In the script's last section, two thieves carry $15 million in a suitcase or a bag during a robbery, but in production Benicio Del Toro, the actor playing one of the criminals, asked McQuarrie how much $15 million would actually weigh. After all, he'd be the one lugging it around on his shoulders. McQuarrie asked the prop guy, who told him it would fill 27 printer paper boxes and weigh "like 1,200 pounds or 1,500 pounds." As McQuarrie tells it, finding out the actual weight "revolutionized the sequence" by forcing him to think about the reality of the physical demands of the situation.

Netflix's new military thriller Triple Frontier, which debuted on the streaming service on Wednesday, is like that anecdote on steroids -- or, perhaps more accurately, crates of Muscle Milk. The burly squad of ex-military commandos pulled together by Oscar Isaac's Santiago Garcia, a private contractor overseeing deadly drug enforcement operations in Colombia, is a ragtag team of action movie archetypes: There's the sad, real-estate-selling divorced dad who looks like he'd rather be vaping (Ben Affleck); the noble, buff warrior stuck giving rote speeches about his past glories (Charlie Hunnam); the taciturn, hat-wearing helicopter pilot the filmmakers didn't bother outfitting with a backstory (Pedro Pascal); and the other dude (Garrett Hedlund) who does amateur MMA fights. The whole gang's here.

The story is only unique because of the intricacies of its premise, particularly the difficulties the men have transporting the massive amount of loot they steal from a drug kingpin living in a compound hidden in South America. After Santiago recruits his buddies for one last (very illegal) mission, they case the the place, draw up a plan, and then carry it out with deadly precision. But, inevitably, they get greedy and then they get sloppy. They find so much money in the kingpin's house -- bags and bags and bags -- that moving it from one location to another becomes a physics problem you'd find on the SAT. Will it fit in the van? The helicopter? The boat? On a broader thematic and spiritual level, will the money also fill the voids in their hearts?

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It's not hard to see why the idea, which was conceived by screenwriter Mark Boal and originally set to be shot by The Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow, would appeal to so many of Hollywood's biggest male actors. (Tom Hanks, Will Smith, Johnny Depp, Mark Wahlberg, Channing Tatum, and Tom Hardy were all rumored to be involved at various points in the film's lengthy development history.) You get to play a soldier, look tough while carrying an automatic weapon, and spend time emoting down the home stretch as the tension rises. Think of the monologue potential! The tactical training! Plus, you get to hang out on the beach with your boys!

For its more satisfying first half, which kicks off menacingly with Metallica's "For Whom the Bell Tolls," Triple Frontier works as a hybrid of a quasi-journalistic high-brow military drama and a low-brow men-on-a-mission film. Imagine if Zero Dark Thirty was produced by WWE Films. Characters say goofy lines like, "This turned out to be some full-on cowboy shit," but they also find time to go on little ethical rants about the military industrial complex and ask some tough questions about private operations like the one they find themselves on. "You know how many bad fucking men are out in the world?" bellows Affleck at one point, sounding like Batman replying to a particularly laborious Twitter thread from a national-security wonk.

triple frontier
Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix

That delicate balance between the pleasingly ridiculous and ponderously serious breaks down in the second half of the film as the stakes are raised, the body count rises, and we enter The Treasure of Sierra Madre territory. Director J.C. Chandor, who also shares a writing credit with Boal on the screenplay, previously directed the macho, Mamet-lite finance crisis drama Margin Call and the sleepy, Pacino-aping crime thriller A Most Violent Year, which also starred Isaac. He knows how to generate suspense, particularly when there's verbal firepower involved, but he's not a master of kinetic, tactics-obsessed filmmaking like Bigelow, who likely would have wrung even more unbearable tension out of the scenario. Similarly, he doesn't have a distinct feel for the brief, slightly comical moments of male-bonding either. That would require a Howard Hawks-like touch. Chandor, a director seemingly obsessed with evoking dread, doesn't really "do humor."

He does do desperate men screaming at one another, revealing long-held grievances and harsh truths, and there's plenty of that as the group lugs their bags across the increasingly hostile landscape. Amidst the grim hoofing through the mountains, there's also a fair amount of "we were warriors" speechifying, enough to distract from the lean efficiency of the premise. There's so much cash in the bags that at one point the men start a fire for warmth, using the cursed contraband as kindling. They can't carry it all, so they might as well use it as fuel. The image of Hedlund cackling as the money smolders in his hand is a potent metaphor for Netflix's film distribution strategy, but, in the context of the movie, it feels like another empty gesture towards profundity.

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Dan Jackson is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.