Santiago Garcia doesn’t need no stinkin’ badges. He doesn’t have a badge, officially speaking, as a member of the Special Forces, but he wouldn’t need it anyway. Santiago, known as “Pope” to friends, kicks some pretty good ass in the way that few men can if they play by the rulebook. As played by Oscar Isaac, Pope is a smart, brooding, ruthless, and reckless renegade. He’s part cop and part robber, and Isaac comfortably inhabits shades of grey in a genre that too often portrays characters as merely black or white.
After he loses a prisoner during a raid that goes violently wrong in the film’s heart-pounding opening sequence, Pope decides to make a quick exit plan from the Special Forces. He goes rogue while chasing a lead from said heist and decides to cut through the red tape by going straight to the source. His target is cartel kingpin Gabriel Martin Lorea (Reynaldo Gallegos), who’s hiding in a tightly guarded compound deep in the jungle. The kicker is that Pope aims to knock off the kingpin and fast track the job he’s struggling to do for Uncle Sam. By doing it off the books, though, he can retire early thanks to the millions of dollars that his informant (Sheila Vand) says is stashed away in Lorea’s safe.
Every Danny Ocean needs his gang of caballeros, so Pope recruits his best and neediest men from past missions. First on his roster is Redfly (Ben Affleck), who coasts through forced retirement while struggling to sell cheap condos to newlyweds—not quite as exciting as staging an explosive heist in the Amazon. There’s also the brotherly duo of Ben (Garret Hedlund), now an amateur boxer, and Ironhead (Charlie Hunnam), a cadet trainer, who bring musclepower/firepower, respectively, while Catfish (Pedro Pascal) comes aboard on pilot duty to help the birds flee the coop. The gang is geared up and eager to get back in the game, and Pope’s heist provides an ideal chance to scratch the itch they’ve been feeling in civilian life.
The centrepiece of the film is the adrenaline-pumping raid on the Lorea compound, which feels as if it plays out in real time as the team closes in on the safe house from the back corners of the jungle and robs it of its riches. While the gang is riled-up and palpably high on the thrill of returning to the line of fire, Triple Frontier sees motives and allegiances shift as the men navigate their old roles as heroes and their new gigs as thieves. When the gang discovers that the score is bigger than they imagined, greed overtakes them and they abandon all foresight and prudence from their training, delaying a safe exit in order to leave with far more money than they can smuggle across the border. Things become messy, as they always do, and the bad calls made late in the game set the stage for a mission far more precarious than the one any of them signed up for.
As directed by JC Chandor (A Most Violent Year) and written by Chandor and Mark Boal (Zero Dark Thirty), Triple Frontier is a no-holds-barred action epic with high stakes and major thrills. The film might suffer in comparison to the recent release of the cartel drama Birds of Passage for the few audiences who saw Ciro Guerra and Crisitina Gallego’s artfully riveting epic, and one wishes that Chandor and Boal had upped the stakes by expanding the scope of the game beyond Pope’s crew. Birds of Passage, by comparison, situates the play upon greed within the greater history of colonialism that has devastating and ongoing consequences for the people who work in minor roles in the drug trade, and only appear fleetingly in Triple Frontier. As an action thriller, however, Triple frontier features spectacular use of locations with principle photography done in Colombia, incorporating the jagged rocks of the Andes and the lush greenery of the jungle into the film’s tense psychology. The landscape, slickly shot by Roman Vasyanov, becomes a central character as it mirrors the fragmentation of the bonds between the gang.
Chandor draws strong performances from the ensemble with Isaac headlining the team of anti-heroes whose stakes, like it or not, are probably more relatable than not for audiences who want more out of life than they’re getting. Affleck gives a surprising performance that reminds viewers that he has some respectable acting chops when given a role with substance. The I’m-too-old-for-this-shit fatigue Affleck wears in Redfly’s skin provides a novel thrill as the character emerges from his resigned acceptance with a fiery fight for another chance.
Tensions run high and the challenges of the mission test the friends’ allegiances and their barometers between right and wrong. Triple Frontier finds its thrills not in the shootouts in the jungle or the car chases along the beach, but through the moral scales each character weighs within himself as the gang confronts the sad realization that no matter the payday, their heist wasn’t worth the score. The film plays like a souped-up, high-calibre reimagining of John Huston’s crime classic The Treasure of Sierra Madre as greed overtakes the men and perverts their characters. Their desire for more ultimately proves more dangerous than the lingering strands of the cartel hunting their tracks throughout the jungle. The premise of Triple Frontier isn’t entirely new, but its tale of honour among thieves is one that never grows old.
Triple Frontier is playing at TIFF Lightbox and hits Netflix March 13.