Review: ‘Triple Frontier’ has a bloated plot with boring characters

by Madison Wilson | 3/26/19 2:05am

“Triple Frontier” dropped on Netflix earlier this month with little advertisement but has since exploded into an online sensation. However, I think that the film’s high ratings can be attributed to the hype from its attractive, star-studded cast rather than the quality of the film itself.  

The film had a long arrival period — it has been in and out of production for years, with various big names coming in and then pulling out of the project. Director J. C. Chandor finally settled with a leading cast of Oscar Isaac, Ben Affleck, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund and Pedro Pascal. However, even this all-star cast was not able to pull the script out from the depths of boredom and predictability. 

Oscar Isaac stars as Santiago “Pope” Garcia, a private contractor working to root out insidious drug lord Gabriel Martin Lorea. After years of searching, Pope finally finds Lorea’s home address and assembles friends from his U.S. military days (Affleck, Hedlund, Hunnam and Pascal) to help him scope out the house and, eventually, kill Lorea and steal all his drug money. The bulk of the action, however, takes place after the initial murder and robbery, as the crew tries to smuggle mountains of Lorea’s cash out of the titular region — the Triple Frontier area between Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil — back to the States. They struggle to move the massive amounts of cash efficiently, eventually having to make certain sacrifices in order to make it out of the region alive. 

Isaac is the clear star of the film. His portrayal of Pope is dynamic yet concise, always keeping Pope’s central goal — ridding the region of drug lord Lorea — as the driver of the action. Pope is not written as a deeply complex character, and Isaac stays true to that. We get occasional moments of tenderness, with informant-turned-lover Yovanna played by Adria Arjona, that add interesting layers to Isaac’s performance, but a wandering plot and subpar supporting actors muddy his portrayal. Also, Pope has almost no backstory: What was his life like before this mission? 

As Tom “Redfly” Davis, Affleck also gives a convincing performance but gets bogged down in the stereotypical acting that defines the film. His character has a family, which provides his central motive throughout. However, Affleck plays this character too simply, boiling Redfly down to a few simple things: he has a family, lives an unhappy life and has post taumatic stress disorder. That’s about all we get from Redfly, and it’s a shame because Affleck has so much more potential. 

Other characters also feel underdeveloped. Hunnam, famous for his role as Jax in “Sons of Anarchy,” plays William “Ironhead” Miller, the unwavering moralist of the group. Hunnam plays Ironhead almost the same way he played Jax: a man who is loyal to his friends, has a strong senses of right and wrong and care deeply about his family. It’s all well and good, but it’s predictable. 

Hedlund plays Ironhead’s brother Ben Miller , or Benny, , the kind meathead — again, predictably. Pascal performs as Francisco “Catfish” Morales, who is a more complex character than the others, quiet and intriguing. We never learn his backstory, but Pascal hints at something dark — perhaps a drug problem? — and some lingering effects of PTSD. Despite Catfish’s potential to be a much more unique and compelling character, he stays an enigma for the entirety of the film, never quite becoming a real person, like other underdeveloped tropes in this movie.  

I don’t think these failings are necessarily the fault of the actors themselves, but rather the fault of the film’s screenplay. It narrates a bumbling and bloated plot, too full of unnecessary twists and turns to allow the actors to bring their characters out of the realm of the predictable. We never learn about any character’s backstory. This denies the audience the opportunity to gain more insight into characters’ personal lives, thus making it impossible for these actors to give us well-rounded, complete and innovative characters. As is true for the film as a whole, I was left feeling like so much potential was wasted. 

I was most interested in the moral message “Triple Frontier” poses. To summarize without including spoilers, as their stash of money dwindles, the crew must make continual sacrifices. With this, the film poses a question: Were the crew’s sacrifices worth it? How much are we willing to give up for wealth? I was left thinking about Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” — a completely different work with a similar moral argument. How much of ourselves must we sacrifice for the ultimate prize? The film also meditates on the origins of greed. Each character has their own reasons for wanting all this cash and each initially believes he “needs” the money but ultimately comes to the realization that he really does not. While these are poignant messages, the script spends too much time wandering through the South American jungle to properly explore them. 

The biggest disappointment of “Triple Frontier” is director J.C. Chandor. After thought-provoking, surprising and fascinating works like “A Most Violent Year,” “Triple Frontier” feels like a lackluster follow-up. The audience can clearly feel that this film could be more, but its twisty-turvy plot and occasionally overly explosive acting dilute this potential, making the overall experience low-impact and dull. We’re left feeling like there could have been a better ending, something that would have left us with more meaning. While entertaining at a surface level, “Triple Frontier” falls very, very short of the anticipation generated by its stellar cast.