While watching the first half of this latest film by director J.C. Chandor – who had previously made the kinda-sorta Hollywood outliers Margin Call, All Is Lost and A Most Violent Year – I wondered whether he had taken Richard Ayoade’s recent book The Grip of Film as straight-faced gospel, given that book’s amusing obsession with 80s trash action movies, their heroes and the men who played them. On the face of it, and certainly during the opening hour, that’s what Triple Frontier is: a slick, modern take on those hi-octane, ultra-macho 80s flicks (with a slight homage to the more esoteric Sorceror) in which a tooled-up dude or team of tooled-up dudes performs some sort of task or undertakes some sort of journey, usually in a foreign land that the US government has a vested interest in.
The retrograde plot of Triple Frontier involves Oscar Isaac’s former special ops bro putting together a team of other former special ops bros (Pedro Pascal, Ben Affleck, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund) for that fabled ‘last job’, which will make them all rich beyond their wildest dreams – a story that, quite frankly, has been done to death. Affleck becomes the de facto leader, partly because he was the group’s main man when they were performing nefarious badness for the CIA, US military et al in the past, and also presumably because he’s the most famous actor in the picture, while each of the characters is (poorly) fleshed out with a minimal backstory establishing their motivation (bored with job, daughter’s college fund needed, etc etc).
While the characterisation and plotting early on is as half-arsed as it is regressive, it does at least let you know that each man has given a lot in dubious service to their country without really receiving the kind of above-board fiscal compensation they should have, considering their actions and the risks involved. Having been conditioned to think in a certain way by Hollywood for decades, we therefore hope that each man succeeds in the film’s mission – a daring, non-government-sponsored heist carried out on foreign shores – and will thus be set for life. They crack jokes and seem likeable. They’re even robbing a South American cartel head who executes people and has made a shit ton of cash, just to make sure there’s a recognisable ‘big bad’ with plenty of disposable, killable employees to hang the first and second acts on.
Without wishing to give too much away, Chandor takes ‘that’ film and gradually whittles away at what usually tends to underpin such fare, making a far more interesting and morally complex movie as a result (ie one that’s as fascinating as his first three). The final hour of Triple Frontier still has its fair share of well-shot and extremely gripping action sequences, all of which see our expert team handling things expertly and in a team-like fashion, but suddenly we start to feel differently about them as individuals and a group: we see that they are robbing a family home in which children live; their greed becomes ever more unpalatable, as does their ruthlessness; and soon they’re not just facing Evil Anonymous Cartel Henchmen, but opportunistic (and barely-trained, but still anonymous) farmers or young teenagers who have presumably been pressed into cartel service on account of their poverty (a move which really does suggest the power and the reach that the most sizeable racketeering organisations have). Our empathy drains away, which is very much an ‘anti-Hollywood’ move.
What Chandor has done is worth admiring, I think: on the one hand this is a slick, good-looking ‘heart-of-darkness’ actioner with serviceable-to-good performances (Affleck is probably the standout, Isaac is decent but can be and has been better) and an easy-to-follow plot, and the film can absolutely be enjoyed on that level alone. It’s also rather deft at debunking the myth of the American hero – let’s just say that the mission isn’t a success, some rather nasty things happen in the name of it and very quickly you begin to side just as much with the people whose lives this band of bros are affecting. It’s a shame that the supporting characters are given short shrift and that there’s a terribly cheesy, uplifting coda to emphasise the inherent nobility of the American criminals (after the time spent undermining such cliched bullshit), but overall this is a tense heist thriller that, enjoyably, asks more questions than most other genre flicks. (3.5)