Triple Frontier masterfully manufactures tension in an otherwise textbook men-on-a-mission movie

Triple Frontier masterfully manufactures tension in an otherwise textbook men-on-a-mission movie
Triple Frontier is a triple threat of a film. In trailer-speak, it’s from the writer of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. It’s from the director of that movie where Robert Redford is lost at sea. And it’s from the studio that is either going to save motion pictures or destroy cinema as we know it.

Affleck, better than ever. Netflix

At its heart, this is a simple men-on-a-mission movie. Special-Ops type Santiago (Oscar Isaac) is on the trail of a Brazilian drug lord named Lorea. He’s been hired to provide recon on the man’s jungle hideout, but decides instead to kill him and make off with the money.

For that he’ll need a team. So he visits his old pal Tom, played by Ben Affleck, looking comfortably middle-aged. “I’m retired,” Tom tells him. And then, a moment later: “What is it?” In many ways, the story that plays out is that of Tom’s descent through moral ambiguity and straight to hell. It’s his best acting work in 10 years, too, since The Town.

Filling out the team is Charlie Hunnam as William, Garrett Hedlund as his brother Ben – they do look alike – and Pedro Pascal as Frank, because every squad needs a pilot. They find the strongman’s stronghold, which doubles as a strongbox, its walls stuffed with cash instead of insulation.

Too easy? Of course it is, what with more than an hour of film still to go. It turns out that physics, aerodynamics and geography are the most important consideration when you’re trying to get away with £6,000. Wait, did I say 6,000 pounds? I meant 6,000 pounds of money, worth $250 million. It’s so heavy they need to charter a military-grade helicopter to fly it and them over the Andean Mountains to relative safety. At one point they recycle a hundred-dollar bill as a firelighter, then use a few thousand to keep warm.

The ethics never get too complicated – basically, sudden and ill-gotten wealth changes people, promotes bickering and can strain your back – but where the movie truly excels is in manufacturing tension. Time and again it looks as though the team is going to have to jettison some portion of the booty to save their own.

Not that there isn’t some nice dialogue to back up the action. We see Hunnam delivering a patriot speech early in the film to a bunch of U.S. soldiers; later, Isaac’s character twists the very same notions of sacrifice, effort and reward into a justification for what’s to come. And Affleck – ironically, it turns out – reminds everyone that they’ll be turning their backs on every oath they ever took.

It plays out as an almost textbook example of drama, rising action followed by a fall. In a word, swell.

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