Under the Radar

'Triple Frontier': Operators Gotta Operate

Oscar Isaac and Ben Affleck star in "Triple Frontier." (Netflix)

"Triple Frontier" (streaming now on Netflix) profiles as a military thriller starring Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Charlie Hunnam, Pedro Pascal and Garrett Hedlund as former special forces guys who pull off a heist and kill a drug lord.

Writer/director J.C. Chandor and screenwriter Mark Boal don't skimp on the action (or the production values), but they're more interested in the psychological toll endured by men who operate on the the tip of the spear.

Boal won Oscars for writing and producing "The Hurt Locker" and was nominated again for "Zero Dark Thirty," the story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. He started his career as a journalist and did massive research for both of those movies and for last year's underrated cop drama "Detroit."

"Triple Frontier" seems like Boal's attempt to take what he's learned about the special forces life and its aftermath and put it into a commercial thriller, one that highlights the price we ask our military heroes to pay.

Unfortunately, Hollywood saw a big ticket movie that didn't have either a historical event or a pre-existing brand to sell the movie to audiences. Over the course of this decade, Tom Hanks, Will Smith, Johnny Depp, Channing Tatum, Tom Hardy, Mahershala Ali and Casey Affleck were all attached at one time or another. Boal's screenplays have previously been directed by Kathryn Bigelow, but she dropped out of this one to focus on her Bowe Bergdahl movie and Chandor took over.

Chandor is known for his cerebral action movies. He made his debut with "Margin Call" about the dawn of the 2008 financial crisis, a suspenseful thriller that takes place in offices with people talking but lands more blows than most movies fueled by bombs and explosions. "All is Lost," featuring Robert Redford as a sailor lost at sea, features almost no dialogue and conveys the danger and desperation almost entirely through action and facial expression. His mob movie "A Most Dangerous Year" dials down the violence but still delivers the tension.

"Triple Frontier" uses the standard (but reliable) "one big score" plot to investigate just how lost these men are after completing their service. Pope (Isaac) is a military "adviser" to undisciplined and disorganized South American law enforcement. He's not seeing any results and feels little connection to the men he's trying to help. Pope learns the location of a drug jefe's cash stash and devises a plan to take him out and keep the money.

He returns to the States and looks to enlist his former team. Their leader Redfly (Affleck) is enduring a busted marriage and failing at a career in residential real estate. Pilot Catfish (Pascal) has lost his flying license after a low-end cocaine bust. Ironhead (Hunnam) is managing his younger brother Ben's (Hedlund) small-time MMA career. No one is using his skills, and no one's finding any reward from his work.

Pope lures them down as recon consultants, but everyone knows he's putting together a mission even if they pretend they're just giving advice. Once they see the job and learn the details of Pope's plan, they all jump at a chance to join, even though it seems they're more interested in the thrill of the job than the money waiting at the other end.

They pull off the job and kill the drug lord but, since this is a movie, things immediately start to go wrong. Without the unifying principle of service to flag and country, though, personal issues begin to color individual decisions and it's much harder for them to work as a team.

As the men struggle to extract their cash from the jungle, there's more talk than action, but it's the interaction between these men and their search for meaning in a post-service life that the filmmakers and actors want to explore.

These men know they're acting against the principles they swore to uphold during their military careers and never pretend otherwise. "Triple Frontier" doesn't celebrate them as heroes but asks a more provocative question: After we're done with them, what else are they supposed to do?

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