With a script that makes little sense and drug-related elements force-fed into the narrative, Triple Frontier appears nothing more than an action-packed movie trying to surf on the wave of success of “Narcos” and other popular narco-themed productions. This is a shame in light of how promising the idea was of setting the story in one of Latin America’s booming organized crime hub.
“The effects of committing extreme violence on other human beings are biological, and physiological. That’s the price of being a warrior,” says a worn down-looking ex-soldier to a few dozen uniforms at a US military academy.
Triple Frontier’s opening scene sparks curiosity yet sets the audience up for disappointment. With the movie title setting the story in the Tri-Border Area where Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina meet, the audience could be forgiven for having high expectations of a deep-dive into a booming yet relatively unknown criminal hotspot.
Might the movie touch on recurrent rumors of overlaps between Islamic terrorism and drug trafficking in the money laundering hub? Would it portray Brazil’s powerful gangs encroaching on Paraguayan criminals’ turf? Could it exploit the tri-border setting to paint the dirty and dark side of militarized antinarcotic efforts, as its narco-themed predecessor “Sicario” did so successfully? None of the above. Not even across Triple Frontier’s two – very long – hours.
Geography 101 Failed
Hollywood productions can be forgiven a few shortcuts when dealing with the drug trade in Latin America. It’s even expected. But Triple Frontier’s narrative reaches a level of such incoherence that one wonders if any study was made to understand the region and its criminal dynamics.
The scenario’s premise is unsettling in and of itself. The tri-border area is one of Latin America’s most decried money laundering hubs. Criminals are spoilt for choice between whitewashing dirty proceeds through financial institutions, contraband or currency exchange schemes to name but a few. Yet an almighty capo decides to stash away hundreds of millions in drug money in a house in the middle of the jungle because “he doesn’t trust banks.” Surprise: disgruntled former US special forces soldiers walk up to the house, murder him, and rob him.
So why choose the Tri-Border Area setting? Why name the movie after it? This was almost certainly to jump on the bandwagon of recent drug-themed productions, as the setting has no bearing on the scenario. The movie makes no mention of marijuana, despite Paraguay being South America’s top producer and the Tri-Border Area being a key trafficking spot for the drug heading to Brazil and Argentina. Rather, the location of the heist leads the narrative to fall into complete geographic nonsense.
After loading up a van with over 2 tons of cash, the protagonists drive to a supposedly close-by landing strip to board an old Soviet Union military helicopter. From the middle of the jungle, this strip is among snowy mountain peaks meant to represent the Andes. Never mind that the Andes are over 1,000km away and are virtually impossible to spot from the Tri-Border Area.
The movie descends further into farce when the soldiers’ escape plan sees them take a helicopter across all of Paraguay, all of Bolivia, and drop off an informant in Peru, before crossing the Andes altogether to board a boat waiting on the Pacific coast of Peru. Or maybe it’s supposed to be Chile – one simply doesn’t know anymore by this point.
But before they can cross the Andes, the five soldiers crash into a field.
“That’s cocaine they’re growing,” says a grim Ben Affleck. Another movie might have taken a stab at subtlety here. But one actually wonders whether the Triple Frontier character believes cocaine pops out of the earth, and is unaware of the chemical process applied to coca leaves.
The ex-soldiers go on to massacre a bunch of local farmers, who are too curious about the heavy cash-loaded bags, before paying off the village chief for the “debt” of the killings and moving on to cross the Andes with mules.
On the other side await a couple of the late capo’s men, at the command of “twenty heavily-armed teenagers.” How these low-level criminals from southwest Brazil and their underaged guns-for-hire managed to beat the five airborne protagonists to the Peruvian – or Chilean? – seaside and how they knew where to stand guard along the Pacific coast is a thing of wonder, obviously left unexplained.
A missed opportunity
For all their flaws, Narcos and Sicario had the merit of striving to offer a more nuanced approach to the drug trade and its wide-reaching political and human repercussions. Triple Frontier not only misses that opportunity, it also wastes the great potential offered by the initial Tri-Border Area setting.
Some areas of the border region are virtually lawless. The official borders themselves are unguarded for extended parts and extremely porous, fuelling trafficking and smuggling of all sorts. The area is considered one of the largest contraband hubs throughout Latin America. Yet Triple Frontier shows none of that, save for a brief portrayal of how easily the Paraguay-Brazil border can be crossed.
Just as the audience is left hanging with the movie’s opening remarks on violence and human psychology, Triple Frontier hints at deep corruption, without ever bothering to bring a closer look.
“That’s a lot more than $75 million dollars in there,” an informant tells one of the ex-soldiers. “It’s not just Lorea [the capo] in there. A lot more people are going to come looking after you,” the character adds. The viewer is left with no idea of who else’s money was stolen, as the script makes no further mention of the issue.
To save the day, the movie’s fighting scenes are at least enjoyable, and the cast’s training with Special Forces certainly paid off. A violent shootout between police and drug traffickers arguably offers the movie’s most interesting detail. One of our protagonists, working for a security consulting firm hired by Paraguay’s government, grabs an assault rifle with an under-barrel grenade launcher from a downed police officer, and fires an explosive round through the window, single-handedly ending the firefight.
“Good shot,” he quips as he instantly hands the weapon to a police officer, hinting at the murky reality and jurisdiction issues of US state and private antinarcotic cooperation in the region.
The movie scores a point with this detail, especially when considering the recent debate over Paraguay’s March 2017 Congressional approval of training by US Navy Seals, which spurred criticism over the opacity of the operation.
Still, Triple Frontier offers no more than yet another action-packed movie with the same-old brotherhood under fire themes, squandering a shot at a more enriching look at one of Latin America’s more complex organized crime hubs.