“Triple Frontier” is one of a few new movies you need to see right now, but the film won’t be shown in theaters. It’s on Netflix.
An action movie about five men of war who decide to go into business for themselves, “Triple Frontier” boasts a remarkable cast, including Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund, and Pablo Pascal.
The story is simple. The men have all ended their careers as warriors, but without finding any sense of fulfillment. They don’t have honors to look forward to or anything by way of a future. All they know for certain is they have to put their pasts behind them.
But civilian life just doesn’t have enough to offer. The older men feel their mortality catching up with them and the younger ones feel, like so many other people, that the future is uncertain and even inscrutable.
So they do the all-American thing and find a way to do well by doing good. The guys plan to kill a drug lord in Brazil and run away with his vast wealth. You might expect a cheap action movie to follow, with great explosions, unstoppable heroes who wipe out everything in their paths, and a lot of cool dialogue. Alternately, you might expect a grim, depressive deconstruction of toxic masculinity. But the film offers neither.
Instead, “Triple Frontier” offers a story of honor, temptation, sacrifice, and redemption. The dialogue is plausible and the action is too, with characterization remaining the focus of both. We start by liking these guys and end by taking seriously the moral choices they make, believing their actions really do have consequences.
Director J.C. Chandor, the man behind the great film “A Most Violent Year,” knows what he’s doing, and has viewers not only following a tactical operation, but all sorts of other plot lines, including an impressive mountain adventure. He creates the right scenes and the right environment to give this story of manliness a full scope, showcasing the men’s power and excellence, a rare achievement today. We suffer along with the men, even as we marvel at their powers, and end up understanding why they cannot simply settle into peaceful, comfortable, uneventful lives. They were made for something greater.
Chandor wrote “Triple Frontier” with Mark Boal, who also made “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” both successful and prestigious films. But this is the first time he offers a drama that fully involves you in the moral struggle men face in their search for brotherhood and their competition to distinguish themselves.
The conflict between power and honor is fully on display here. It’s neither didactic nor bombastic, and it reproduces most faithfully the heartbreak involved in the lives of our warrior classes. Excellence is tied up for them with becoming strangers to America, risking their lives somewhere else.
On the other hand, they only know how to live as Americans and they hope to settle into civilian life eventually, but with some dignity or assurance of the future. But war reveals something sacred, and these men are defined by it.
The more you see how well the men work together, the easier it becomes to understand why civilian life, where there’s no existential danger and no binding loyalty, is experienced as a loss. At some level, danger is preferable to comfortable living, because in peace time, you never really know who your friends are and there’s very little time for that anyway. The priorities of peace and war are opposed.
But then there’s the matter of making a living, since no one can wage war forever. Peaceful America doesn’t really reward warriors—and you can see how moving from risking life to risking the indignities of commercial life might rub men the wrong way. This is especially important for men like these, who are in certain, important ways marginal figures. They’ve not quite succeeded to fit anywhere.
The different paths each man represents are all persuasive and together make for a movie about the one thing that’s been banished from our entertainment: Friendship between men, and the need they feel to find honor. Whether we like it or not, war is one of the few occasions for such storytelling. These mercenaries are both manly and serious, and they give a good portrait of the crisis we’re undergoing without collapsing into fantasy or nihilism. It’s a hard thing to pull off, and beautiful to watch.