“Triple Frontier” is a solid, engrossing genre item with designs on being something more. It doesn’t quite get there but it does well enough along the way to make the journey worth taking.
Certainly, “Frontier’s” bona fides are in good order. It is directed by J.C. Chandor, whose last film was the superlative “A Most Violent Year,” and its cast is top-lined by heavyweights like Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Charlie Hunnam and Garrett Hedlund.
Chandor also shares screenplay credit with Mark Boal (Oscar winner for “Hurt Locker”), and film buffs who recognize his name as well as the film’s title will remember that almost a decade ago this project began as a solo script slated to be directed by Boal’s frequent collaborator Kathryn Bigelow.
Set in an unnamed area of Latin America (likely including Colombia) where the borders of three countries come together, “Frontier’s” core story, presumably unchanged, is a heist movie of the familiar “one last job” variety.
But instead of career criminals hoping to cash out, the protagonists are career special-forces operatives (Airborne Rangers are referenced) who gave the best years of their lives to their country and are now wondering why things post-service haven’t turned out better.
Though this is not new territory, it is for Chandor, and he and his expert team, including cinematographer Roman Vasyanov and editor Ron Patane, bring brisk, involving professionalism to the telling.
Like “Seven Samurai,” “Frontier” begins with the formation of a fighting unit, but unlike the Kurosawa film, which united strangers, this one details how former comrades in arms, each one with an apparently obligatory nickname, are persuaded to reunite.
Met first is retired Capt. William “Ironhead” Miller (Hunnam), introduced as someone who’s “been everywhere you want to go and places you don’t” before giving a pep talk to newly graduated special-forces folks.
Miller talks about the downsides of being trained to kill (“the violent price of being a warrior”) and how good it felt to be “pure and proud” as a fighter representing his country.
This sequence is brief, but the introduction of Santiago “Pope” Garcia is more extensive. Like Miller, Garcia no longer works for the government but he’s still active as a hired gun in an unnamed country (the sequences were shot in Bogotá) advising the military in its attempt to quash the drug trade.
Taking part in a crisply shot drug raid, Garcia is surprised to see Yovanna (a convincing Adria Arjona) among the captured. This comely young woman turns out to be his informant, and it soon transpires that she has just come into some key information.
This nationwide drug ring is headed by a mysterious, elusive drug lord named Gabriel Martin Lorea (Reynaldo Gallegos), a man who lives in a mansion deep in the jungle where he keeps watch over his uncountable millions, and Yovanna has just found out exactly where that is.
A straight-shooter all his life with little to show for it, Garcia suddenly feels larceny nipping at his heels. Why shouldn’t be and his old Special-Forces pals help others by taking Lorea down and then help themselves by absconding with all that cash?
“Ironhead” Miller, his nickname notwithstanding, is easy to convince, but Tom “Redfly” Davis, played by Affleck, is harder to get on the team, and not because he is doing so well in civilian life. Because he isn’t.
With his marriage in shambles and barely surviving economically as a real estate agent, a job he is supremely unsuited for, the straight-arrow Davis is reluctant to do something against the law, which gives Garcia a chance to wax eloquent on why he believes in their larcenous mission.
“You were shot five times for your country and you can’t afford a new truck, that’s the crime,” he exclaims to his pal. “You should be set for life. Seventeen years of service and nothing to show for it. Do we finally get to use our skills for our own benefit?”
Though all the performances in “Frontier” are convincing, as an actor who expertly conveys amoral duplicity Isaac is especially well-suited to playing the devil’s advocate here.
So it’s just a matter of time before Davis, expert pilot Francisco “Catfish” Morales (Pedro Pascal) and Miller’s brother Ben (Hedlund), who somehow escaped without a nickname, join the team and head into action.
More than half of “Triple Frontier” is devoted to the planning, execution and unexpected (isn’t it always) aftermath of that robbery (photographed at the Kualoa Ranch and the Clarence H. Cooke House on the island of Oahu and the Sierra Nevada near Mammoth.)
Though there is a certain amount of contrivance and coincidence in the narrative, the action sequences are often surprising and always involving.
Also effective, though not to the extent that the film hopes for, is the working out of “Triple Frontier’s” underlying themes of the nature of masculinity, the cost of violence and the corrosive effect of greed.
If those notions make you think of John Huston’s classic “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” it will not surprise you that that film was on director Chandor’s mind as well. The thematic results feel a bit pro forma here and do not involve us as much as the action does, but even making the attempt is worth applauding.
Rated: R, for violence and language throughout
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes
Playing: Starts March 6, iPic, Westwood; March 13 on Netflix