Title: Triple Frontier
Directed by: J.C. Chandor
Written by: J.C. Chandor and Mark Boal
Starring: Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac and Charlie Hunnam
To go by its welcome-to-the-jungle marketing, the new Netflix film Triple Frontier is another rough-and-tumble drug-cartel thriller, which nicely aligns with the streaming giant’s mountain of other narco-sploitation content. And for its first hour, J.C. Chandor’s feature about a group of ex-military buddies robbing a South American crime lord sticks close to the genre expectations. Triple Frontier drowns in guns, grunting and America-first gringos. The narrative and moral lines are black and white, with its Spanish-language villains as thinly sketched as its American heroes are beefed up in patriotic righteousness. But halfway through, the movie takes an unexpected turn into something more ambiguous and curious – a pivot that, while welcome, appears to feel as jarring to Triple Frontier’s own filmmakers as it does the film’s intended audience.
The set-up is easy enough: Four U.S. Special Forces veterans, each dealing with their own struggles after leaving active duty and each played with suitably heavy world-weariness by Ben Affleck, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund and Pedro Pascal, are nudged by their former brother-in-arms (Oscar Isaac) into taking down a drug lord who’s hoarding hundreds of millions in his isolated compound. The operation seems simple (doesn’t it always?), the payoff is huge (but at what cost?), and the immoral means justify the financial ends (until they don’t).
The presumed trick of Triple Frontier, though, is to gently undermine audience expectations of what a men-on-a-mission movie can deliver. Mostly, Chandor, working with a screenplay co-authored by Zero Dark Thirty writer Mark Boal, engages in drive-by subversion, smoothly twisting his way through the obligatory genre steps until he arrives in the territory of a morally fraught neo-western: more The Treasure of the Sierra Madre than Sicario: Day of the Soldado. That Chandor’s film cannot quite reconcile this eventual tonal shift, though, becomes his own undoing. Triple Frontier is so skilled at following the traditional narrative route – the central heist is as tense a set-piece as you’ll see this year, captured in handsome and painterly compositions by cinematographer Roman Vasyanov – that when the film dares to step away, it seems unsure just how far it should stray. Characters’ motivations bounce up and down the ethical spectrum, initially critical plot points are conveniently solved or ignored altogether, and the meditative aesthetics of the final hour give way to a big and stupid chase scene.
This mish-mash of an achievement is disappointing not only because of Chandor’s clear and admirable mid-film ambition, but since his filmography offered evidence that he’d be able to pull it all off. The director has made three films prior to Triple Frontier, each an entertaining and sharp study in flipping the script. His debut, 2011′s Margin Call, is a Wall Street drama that ignores the hyperbole of the trading floor for a tick-tock study of boardroom secrets and whispers. His follow-up, 2013′s All Is Lost, put Robert Redford through all kinds of hell as a solo sailor facing doom, creating the anti-Cast Away. And 2014′s A Most Violent Year offered the kind of quiet and thoughtful crime movie that Hollywood stopped producing after Sidney Lumet died. Each film delivers the base elements that its construction promises, but with an ambition and elegance that allows the work to linger.
Netflix is giving Triple Frontier a massive push, and many will load it up if only to see how Affleck fares in his first big post-Batman role (the answer: fine enough, in a supersad-dad sort of way). The best scenario, though, would be for the company’s famed programming algorithm to direct all of Triple Frontier’s viewers to Chandor’s other, more fully realized work. All that’s left to do is for Netflix to actually add those titles to its library. If space is a concern, it could easily swap out a Pablo Escobar series or two. No one will notice.
Triple Frontier opens March 6 at the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto before becoming available to stream March 13 on Netflix