Triple Frontier, 2019.
Directed by J.C. Chandor.
Starring Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Charlie Hunnam, Pedro Pascal, Garrett Hedlund, Adria Arjona, Sheila Vand and Reynaldo Gallegos.
Struggling to make ends meet, former special ops soldiers reunite for a high-stakes heist: stealing $75 million from a South American drug lord.
The fourth film from J.C. Chandor (All Is Lost, A Most Violent Year) finally arrives direct-to-Netflix after almost a decade in development, during which numerous filmmakers and actors flirted with tackling the red-hot action-thriller script.
And though the end result doesn’t quite keep step with Chandor’s usual confident stride, Triple Frontier is an entertaining entry into the over-saturated men-on-a-mission subgenre, elevated significantly by the efforts of both the director and his top-drawer cast.
The central heist kicks off at the behest of Santiago “Pope” Garcia (Oscar Isaac), a gun-for-hire who has apparently spent three years entrenched in South America with little to show for it. With the help of an informant (Adria Arjona), he plots to raid a local kingpin’s heavily guarded den within which up to $75 million is said to be housed. After roping in four pals (Ben Affleck, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund and Pedro Pascal) with their own motivations for joining the op – most of them pecuniary, unsurprisingly – the job is afoot.
Surprisingly enough, Triple Frontier is at its best during the more predictable getting-to-know-you procedure of its first act, where the script – co-written by Chandor and Oscar-winner Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker) – trains a keen eye on the men at the forefront and the tetchy geo-political situation across the titular tri-border area. For though the cast members certainly deliver when the bickering is inevitably called for later on, the more jovial male bonding and perfunctory “will they, won’t they?” of the earlier passages crackles with authentic wit and quasi-tongue-in-cheek masculinity.
Especially good here is Ben Affleck as Tom “Redfly” Davis, a pudgy and evidently depressed middle-aged man whose post-military life sees him eking out an income selling houses while barely maintaining a relationship with his teenage daughter.
It’s difficult to watch the performance without remembering Affleck’s own recent personal troubles, and one suspects he may well have invoked those experiences to make Tom feel that much more world-weary and withdrawn. Given that Affleck’s had a rather rough pick of projects recently, it’s nice to see him working in a worthy wheelhouse again.
Oscar Isaac is also as reliable as usual, effectively playing the closest thing the film has to a protagonist. Much like Isaac’s “hero” in Chandor’s A Most Violent Year, Pope seems unable to fully embrace the ignoble nature of his get-rich scheme, and again, the director does a fantastic job keeping the full extent of the character’s virtue (or lack thereof) a mystery. Isaac, so effective at playing ambiguous characters of dubious repute, really helps hold the entire movie together.
He’s juxtaposed most obviously against the more morally centred William “Ironhead” Miller (Charlie Hunnam), and despite a few noticeable slips back into his native Brit twang, Hunnam once again proves himself to be a criminally underrated talent. Garrett Hedlund and Pedro Pascal also do fine work, but they’re simply the least of the ensemble because their characters are rather on the thin side.
Speaking of thin, it would be remiss not to mention the movie’s disappointing second act downshift into genre schlock territory. The mere fact that the heist kicks off around 45 minutes into the movie is all the hint audiences need that something’s going to go horribly wrong, and duly, characters begin to grasp the idiot ball with reckless, even enthusiastic abandon at this point. The cast takes a game swing at selling the lurches into silliness, but too often viewers are asked to accept turns of character logic that don’t quite feel justified enough.
The focal heist itself is at least a neat, formal joy to behold, even with some of the shockingly dopey writing within. Sadly this is the tack that too much of the remaining hour-plus maintains, heaping on hot-headed character decisions and some melodramatic leaps that just feel a little too calculated for their own good.
But even when the film rouses a raised eyebrow, it is never less than handsome, in terms of not just its beefy cast but also the gorgeous South American locations which DP Roman Vasyanov takes palm-rubbing delight in showcasing. With eye-watering drone shots and intimate treks through the jungle thick, Triple Frontier feels thoroughly lived-in despite the superficiality of its screenplay. Bar some dodgy CGI during a sequence involving a helicopter, this is one of the more technically tight Netflix Originals of recent times (but no Roma, obviously).
How much you’ll spring for Chandor’s film will ultimately come down to what you’re expecting. If you’re a fan of the director’s restrained prior efforts and love the journalistic turmoil of Boal’s scripts for Kathryn Bigelow’s movies, you may find yourself confounded at how aggressively mainstream the end result feels. But if you’re here for the stars, then it’s a concoction likely to go down a good deal easier.
Either way, it’s fair to say that this thriller doesn’t live up to its mesmerising on-paper potential, even if it’s ultimately a not-devastating disappointment because it’s still so imminently watchable and unquestionably well-made.
Though unevenly scripted, Triple Frontier makes good on its grizzled ensemble cast, led by J.C. Chandor’s robust direction.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.