At this stage, given their ever-increasing prolificacy, the very definition of what a Netflix original movie is has become a bit foggy. Unlike a smaller independent, whose library of titles might share surface-level similarities, the streaming giant has morphed into a bigger studio, churning out films across all genres, trying to do it all and sometimes, just sometimes, actually succeeding.
Its latest, and one of its biggest to date, is Triple Frontier, an action thriller that feels very much like a glossy theatrical release, and one whose messy route through development hell reveals that for a long time, it was intended as such. Originally primed as a Paramount picture, to be directed by Kathryn Bigelow and with a rotating cast that has at times included Johnny Depp, Tom Hanks, Will Smith, Tom Hardy, Mark Wahlberg, Channing Tatum and Mahershala Ali, it’s a project that has been a hot property since 2010. In its small-screen incarnation (it will receive a small one-week theatrical window), it’s easy to see the appeal although even easier to see why it has ended up on Netflix.
“Pope” (Oscar Isaac) is a special forces operative who’s spent the last three years trying to catch a powerful drug lord close to the Triple Frontier, the border zone between Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil. When an informant reveals not only his whereabouts but that his house is where he keeps his many millions, Pope hatches a plan. Rather than do it by the book, he will corral his old colleagues, now back in the US trying to lead so-called normal lives, into helping him plan heist. While there are echoes of a greater good, the men are mostly driven by greed and as the plan unfolds, their loyalties to one another become tested.
Rather like the characters themselves, the film-makers’ motivations are similarly straightforward. Directed by JC Chandor, whose work includes financial crash drama Margin Call and 80s crime saga A Most Violent Year, from a script he wrote with Mark Boal, Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Hurt Locker, one might assume from their prior credits that they’ve tasked themselves with adding some weight to the film’s muscular framework. While there are throwaway references to PTSD and how poorly military veterans are treated by the US government, Triple Frontier is mostly concerned with providing unambiguous entertainment, an easily consumed adventure for a broad, undemanding Netflix viewership.
Taken on these terms, it’s an enjoyable enough way to spend two hours but without any commentary or real depth, it’s in need of a bit more suspense or conflict to really oil the wheels, the film too often ambling along when it should be racing. The buildup to the heist is admirably detailed on the logistics but less so on characterisation, the men mostly interchangeable. They might not be quite as high-wattage as some of the names once attached, but Chandor has assembled a solid ensemble with Isaac surrounded by Ben Affleck, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund and Pedro Pascal. While Hunnam strains to make his American accent believable once again and Affleck is stuck delivering lines in his comically over-egged Batman voice, the remaining team members help to fill in the many gaps left by the script while also making some of the clunkier, on-the-nose lines work (“It’s like they take the best 20 years of your life and then spit you out”).
Interestingly, the film is less focused on the heist itself and more on just how to transport so much money out of the middle of the jungle, which does lend a certain unpredictability to the unfolding drama. The titular location also provides Chandor and cinematographer Roman Yasyanov plentiful opportunities to contrast a number of stunning vistas, the film possessing a sleek and expensive, if somewhat anonymous, aesthetic. But as the men traverse from one locale to the next, the script isn’t always able to keep up, the film in need of a few more setpieces or at least some juicier interpersonal conflict to make it roar.
It’s tough to imagine the majority of viewers who stumble upon Triple Frontier not gaining some enjoyment from what they experience, a slick, starry drama found by accident, devoured from the comfort of a living room. But it’s also harder to imagine it lingering in the memory for particularly long and ultimately, maybe that’s what truly defines the majority of Netflix’s original movies: easy to watch, hard to remember.