After disappointing at the box office with his phenomenally underrated 2014 drama A Most Violent Year, J.C. Chandor finally returns with a Netflix movie that will likely be seen by more viewers than watched all three of his previous efforts combined. Like the story it tells, Triple Frontier is full of problems, the men involved all deserve better, but it probably pays better than anything else they’re working on lately so is worth the risks.
Even while noting that it’s unspectacular and holding back on an actual recommendation, our own Rob Hunter seems to like this drug cartel heist movie a bit more than I do, but if you accept the majority of critics’ passing takes and indifferently stream Triple Frontier this week, do yourself a favor and seek out these eight better films that I fondly recalled while following Ben Affleck and company through the jungle.
The Hurt Locker (2008)
What if Triple Frontier was a sequel to The Hurt Locker? Just imagine Jeremy Renner’s Iraq War bomb squad leader continuing a soldier’s life with special ops or mercenary work then masterminding a dangerous heist in the wild West of the tri-border of Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil. Mark Boal wrote The Hurt Locker after spending time as a reporter in Iraq and loosely based the characters on real people he’d met. Boal and Kathryn Bigelow reportedly began developing the plot of Triple Frontier while still working on The Hurt Locker, so perhaps the characters in the new movie are also inspired by real men Boal encountered as a journalist.
Bigelow was initially planning to direct Triple Frontier and was attached for many years. But she and Boal went off to make Zero Dark Thirty, which is also worth looking at in comparison to Triple Frontier, and then Detroit. Chandor took over as director and re-wrote the script for what would become his first Netflix movie. Like The Hurt Locker, Triple Frontier still retains Boal’s interest in the stress of combat and the difficulty for soldiers to return to normal life after serving.
Elite Squad (2007)
Although set in Colombia, the first sequence of Triple Frontier is reminiscent of action scenes from Elite Squad (aka Tropa de Elite), the hugely successful (and widely pirated) Brazilian film that launched Jose Padilhato the attention of Hollywood. The movie follows members of a special force within Rio’s military police as they take on drug lords in the favelas.
Padilha (who has also made some excellent documentaries) would go on to make a sequel to this and then direct the RoboCop remake followed by heavy involvement with Netflix’s Narcos series. He’s also been linked to a rival project set in the Triple Frontier for many years, his titled Tri-Border.
Miami Vice (2006)
For a movie titled Triple Frontier, we don’t get much of a sense of what the real place known as the “Triple Frontier” actually is. For an actual depiction of the region, mix yourself a mojito and queue up Michael Mann’s feature-length adaptation of his own iconic TV series, Miami Vice. Early in the movie, we’re introduced to a second-tier villain in Ciudad del Este, a major, diversely populated city on the Paraguayan side of the tri-border. Mann actually shot there because, as he says, he was attracted to “the energy of [the city’s] trade, but also the multiethnic environment…that to me says what the world is today.”
Mann shot in nearby areas, as well, passing off Uruguay as unavailable Cuba. The main villain is also a drug lord residing deep in the jungle of the region. His villa is sooooo much nicer than the one robbed in Triple Frontier, and that’s aside from it being situated overlooking Iguazu Falls, which are just a click up the river from the tri-border. It’s the kind of place you wouldn’t so much want to rob as take over for your own residence.
The Ground Truth: After the Killing Ends (2006)
A lot of documentaries deal with PTSD, going back at least as far as John Huston’s 1946 classic Let There Be Light. There’s another old one on this list, too. But they’ve certainly been on the rise since the start of this century’s conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Ground Truth is the first one I saw that goes deep into the reasoning behind greater issues affecting veterans due to the different way soldiers have been trained beginning with the Vietnam War.
As Charlie Hunnam (or is it Garrett Hedlund?) says to a military assembly at the start of Triple Frontier, the only thing a veteran can do is continue to work in some kind of military capacity or in the private sector in similar duty. These people are conditioned for a certain experience while serving, and that conditioning doesn’t fit well with normal civilian life. As it turns out, The Ground Truth director went on to work as a production consultant on the drama In the Valley of Elah, which was co-written by Mark Boal.
Want to see what Triple Frontier was supposed to look like? Well, sort of. For years, reports of the movie back when Boal and Bigelow were developing it likened the story to Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic. Apparently, the main cast was going to be various ages (hence the prior involvement of Tom Hanks) with the men all working in the tri-border region, and presumably, there were to be multiple intertwining narratives.
Traffic, which won four Oscars including the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, is actually itself based on a British TV series about heroin smuggling. Soderbergh’s version is focused on drug war in the Americas, with characters including a new US drug czar, his crack-addicted daughter, a couple of DEA agents, a Mexican cop, and a drug lord’s wife. It’s hard to imagine just how split up Bigelow’s Triple Frontier would have been if Traffic truly was a model for its structure.
Three Kings (1999)
Long before he was an Oscar darling making movies with Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, and a short while before the US headed back to Iraq, David O. Russell made, in my opinion, his best movie. Three Kings stars George Clooney, Ice Cube, Mark Wahlberg (who was once attached to Triple Frontier), and Spike Jonze as a quartet of soldiers who, at the end of the Gulf War, venture out to find gold that Saddam Hussein had stolen from Kuwait.
Like Triple Frontier, this is not the first movie about military men plotting a heist using intel retrieved during a legitimate mission, but it’s definitely the funniest and maybe the most poignant. Also like Triple Frontier, there’s a message about doing the right thing with the money. Unlike Triple Frontier, Three Kings is a terrific movie from top to bottom. Look for Alia Shawkat in her screen debut at age 10.
Dead Presidents (1995)
After breaking out with their debut feature, Menace II Society, the Hughes brothers took on a somewhat true story of Vietnam veterans who rob an armored car. This one doesn’t involve soldiers or ex-soldiers stealing from any bad guys associated with a military conflict they fought in, but it fits with the more realistic scenario of vets turning to a life of crime.
Dead Presidents stars Larenz Tate as a young man from the Bronx who returns from combat to an impossible life as a civilian. So, he rounds up his fellow troubled veteran pals, played by Chris Tucker, Freddy Rodriguez, and Bokeem Woodbine, none of whom — like the guys in Triple Frontier — has received the recognition they deserve for fighting for their country. Also check out Woodbine in The Rock as one of he marines who join up with a brigadier general in an act of terrorism and extortion scheme in response to the government’s not compensating the families of men killed during classified missions.
Vietnam Requiem (1982)
For a nice pairing with Dead Presidents, in particular, here’s another documentary pick for this week’s Movies to Watch After… list. Vietnam Requiem profiles five Vietnam War veterans who had perfect records before serving overseas but then turned to violent crime, including armed robbery, upon returning to a country that didn’t appreciate them.
Vietnam Requiem, which won the Emmy Award for Best Documentary following its ABC broadcast, is the directorial debut of Jonas McCord (who went on to produce dramas by Robert Altman and Robert Towne) and Bill Couturie (later an Oscar nominee for helming another Vietnam War-focused feature, Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam, and an Oscar winner for producing Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt). How is this film not more widely available? See it if you can find it.
Kelly’s Heroes (1970)
When it comes to movies about soldiers committing robbery, especially those where the target is behind enemy lines and involves a loot in the possession of real-world enemies, Kelly’s Heroesis the go-to classic. And arguably it has the better ensemble of manly men: Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, and, uh, Don Rickles. They play soldiers in the 35th Infantry who learn about a stash of Nazi gold and go AWOL to get rich.
This is the movie your dad will wish he was watching while streaming Triple Frontier on Netflix. Do him a favor and rent it for him (Kelly’s Heroes isn’t on any subscription-based streaming services at the moment, unfortunately) and watch it together. War films this fun don’t need to remain “dad movies” exclusively. Triple Frontier, meanwhile, can stay with whatever demographic actually appreciates it.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
The film John Huston made after his PTSD documentary Let There Be Light was this sorta Western about three guys who find gold and then become violent with one of them (played by Humphrey Bogart) turning on the others because of greed and paranoia. The succession of the director’s output is coincidental in their difference of relativity to Triple Frontier, of course. In fact, Huston was meant to film the adaptation much earlier, before the US entered World War II and he needed to spend his talents on propaganda docs.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a pretty dark movie, and even though the story existed earlier (the book was published in 1927, nearer to its setting), there’s a read on it that it came about when Huston and many other men were in a darker place following the war. I kept expecting the guys in Triple Frontier to not just bicker over their greediness and other disagreements but also one would be killed by another. But maybe that’s just because I was thinking of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which truly is the (gold) standard of movies about guys going after riches.