Triple Frontier, out on Netflix now, asks of its characters, and of us, a simple question: Is it okay—just, even—to profit from immoral actions if they are undertaken for moral reasons?
The characters are retired Special Forces operators. Pope (Oscar Isaac) is tracking down a drug kingpin in South America, serving as an adviser to local police forces in order to gain intel. Having learned the location of the dealer's home—which doubles as a live-in safe, given his distrust of banks—Pope gets in touch with his former squad mates. Redfly (Ben Affleck) is failing to make a living as a real estate agent. Ironhead (Charlie Hunnam) is giving motivational speeches to soldiers. Ironhead's brother, Ben (Garrett Hedlund), is whiling away the days as a semi-pro MMA fighter. And pilot Catfish (Pedro Pascal) is trying to stay out of jail on a cocaine rap.
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The mission Pope is suggesting has a moral core: Lorea (Reynaldo Gallegos), the drug boss Pope is after, has turned his familial homeland into a borderline failed state, a lawless warzone where violence is a simple fact of life. We see the chaos he has created in the film's opening moments, a police raid turning into a bombastic battle at a moment's notice. The drug dealers are armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades; even if they can't withstand a full-on siege, they can turn local neighborhoods into abattoirs via collateral damage.
Taking out monsters like Lorea is the whole reason that guys like Pope and his team exist. Injustice and the desire to stop it provoke reflexively physical responses in them—at a cost. "The effects of committing extreme violence on other human beings are biological and physiological," Ironhead tells a group of soldiers in one of his pep talks, recounting the time he almost killed a guy in a grocery store because the guy failed to move his cart in a timely fashion. "That's the price of being a warrior."
These changes make it hard for them to do anything else after their service has ended. And the modest pay makes it hard to save for a better life. Which is where the moral question comes in: If they can do some good for the world by taking out Lorea, why can't they do some good for themselves by keeping his loot?
Triple Frontier tries to answer that question by showing that one ethical lapse inevitably leads to another, as excuses escalate and the group commits more crimes, more killings, in order to protect their ill-gained goods. I'm not entirely sure director J.C. Chandor, who cowrote the film with Mark Boal (Zero Dark Thirty), threads the needle as deftly as he needs to here: He wants us to like these guys, to empathize with them, even as we judge them for what they've done. Without spoiling too much, the result is a bit muddled in part because the ending is so pat. Punishment is meted out and reparations paid and everyone gets to look good, more or less.
What Chandor does do well is coax performances out of his actors. Indeed, J.C. Chandor is probably my favorite director of actors working at the moment. Oscar Isaac, who previously worked with the director on the critically acclaimed A Most Violent Year, conveys more feeling with a furrowed brow or a half-grin than most actors manage in an entire movie. That Isaac is great is no surprise; that Hunnam and Hedlund are also great is.
Charlie Hunnam is best when moved to the periphery of a picture. It allows him to tone down his alpha male swagger. I once joked that Hunnam looks as though he walks by throwing one shoulder in front of the other in order to generate momentum in the lower half of his body; he struts like he's a cartoon character. But that's only when he's front and center; taking the focus off of him seems to allow him to relax, to become a bit more natural. It's a better fit. Similarly, when Hedlund is asked to carry a film he seems self-conscious and stilted (e.g., Tron: Legacy). When he's allowed to do something a bit off-kilter, however—as when he played a maniacal gang leader in 2009's Death Sentence and as he is here—he sparks to life.
Triple Frontier has some pacing issues, and it felt like a few loose threads were left dangling. But it's a fine way to spend an evening at home, given the lack of thought-provoking action fare in theaters at the moment.