Director J. C. Chandor is best known for making good movies like Margin Call and All Is Lost that kind of sneak up on you because not a lot actually seems to happen. They’re typically almost over when you find yourself thinking “Huh. It’s weird that I’m really into this even though there isn’t really a significant hook to pull me in and no major novelty or standout angle to hang onto. It’s just really solid stuff.”
Triple Frontier, his new film produced and released this week for Netflix, represents Chandor making an admirable leap outside his own comfort zone. He’s eschewing layered meditative drama for a no-frills, dialogue-light, straightforward hard men with guns paramilitary drama with an MVP lineup of “tough guys who can also act” stars. Triple Frontier boasts a screenplay from Zero Dark Thirty’s Mark Boal that starts out as a “grizzled bitter badasses do black ops” movie, turns into “grizzled bitter badasses do a heist,” and ends up as “grizzled bitter badasses wilderness survival thriller.” The performances are comprised so completely of seething, wordless man feels and tension-breaking affectionate bros before things that are not bros sarcastic machismo that your media player might as well start emitting the vague scent of leather polish and rich mahogany.
Our premise finds Oscar Isaac as a disenchanted War on Terror veteran conducting off-the-books (but probably CIA-backed) mercenary work around the semi-nebulous region of South America where Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina converge at the Panama River (the “Triple Frontier”). He decides to round up a fresh, even more off-the-books crew of his old Special Forces squadmates when he learns that the drug lord he’s supposed to assassinate is keeping millions in unaccounted for stolen cash stored in his compound. The team can go in early, clean it out, do the hit, and go home with enough money to solve all their problems.
The problems facing said squadmates (Pedro Pascal, Charlie Hunnan, Garrett Hedlund and Ben Affleck as “the extra angry one”) are all of the somber, manly and explicitly-topical variety: alimony, unemployment, warrants and the generally crummy treatment modern America affords its servicemen. If nothing else, you can’t say the film’s heart isn’t in the right place. In other words, we’re in “Classy Sad Dad” guy-movie territory. The protagonists aren’t really “heroes,” the bods are beefy, the beards are super beardy, the script is stabbing for depth regardless of all the tactical gear and automatic rifles, and the tone is all about mournful regret gradually tipping over into psychotic anger at the hopeless unfairness of The World We Didn’t Plan For.
The obvious comparison is to Three Kings, another combination of edgy military action and heist thriller made by an indie director trying action on for size. But where that film featured David O. Russell actually going “big” for what eventually turned into something like a straight-up war flick, Triple Frontier is in a hurry to settle back into Chandor’s preferred slow-burn mode.
The setup and execution of the robbery and the failed attempt to fly what turns out to be too much cash over the Andes are suitably exciting. The latter necessitates a dangerous on-foot transport through the countryside during which the team’s blood, sanity, humanity and (symbolically) the cash itself are gradually depleted. The Heart of Darkness by way of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre journey itself is a solid stretch of macho un-bonding, but the sections don’t really fit together in full cohesion. When things flip back around to action mode for Act 3, it less climactic and more like a bookend.
That’s not to say that any of this is bad, just that you keep waiting for the film to take off and it mostly just stays in the merely respectable lane until the end. I liked that there was an air of inevitability about the whole affair. Instead of leading off with how easy everything will be and then springing disaster like a contrived surprise, all anyone can talk about is how bad and dangerous an idea this is and how certain characters have no business being back in the field because they’re gonna lose their shit and do something bad, which all turns out to be true.
But that also means there’s not a ton of long-term story tension, especially if you’ve seen at least one covert mission movie, one heist movie, or one tough guys going nuts in the jungle movie before this. While it’s interesting watching Chandor experiment with his quietly observational style in such a starkly different context, there’s a problem with applying deliberate, grounded dramatics to the skeleton of an action script about men of few words walking a mostly-straight path.If they aren’t going to blow things up or engage in meaningful conversation, there’s not that much for them to do between setpiece moments where various quantities of money are spent, scattered or otherwise cast aside as heavy-handed symbolism for more esoteric intangible losses.
Triple Frontier’s main saving grace is that it’s a decently paced, handsome-looking production, especially for a Netflix original. The actors deliver the kind of rock solid results you expect from this kind of lineup. Isaac and Affleck especially remind everyone that they can rise above even thin material when they want to. Triple Frontier isn’t particularly memorable or deep, and maybe it’s not trying to be either. But as classy tough guy melodrama goes, it gets the job done. I admire its attempt to balance empathy for how badly war damages these guys while also casting a critical eye on how messed up every aspect of their situation is. I didn’t love it, but I respected it.