Triple Frontier (2019)

2019 #39
J.C. Chandor | 125 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.11:1 | USA / English, Spanish & Portuguese | 15 / R

Triple Frontier

Former US soldier Santiago ‘Pope’ Garcia (Oscar Isaac) is struggling to make a difference as a consultant to a South American police force when his informant (Adria Arjona) finally gives him the location of powerful drug lord Gabriel Lorea (Reynaldo Gallegos), who’s hiding deep in the jungle surrounded by ill-gotten gains to the tune of many millions of dollars. Deciding the cops are too corrupt to handle this, Pope reaches out to his old military buddies — commander and strategist Tom ‘Redfly’ Davis (Ben Affleck), pilot Francisco ‘Catfish’ Morales (Pedro Pascal), and brothers Ben and William ‘Ironhead’ Miller (Garrett Hedlund and Charlie Hunnam) — to take on one last ‘off the books’ mission: kill Lorea and pocket the money for themselves. But they decide it’s too immoral so stay at home and do nothing.

Not really! Of course they agree to do it, risking their lives and their moral code for a big payday they all desperately need.

On the one hand Triple Frontier is a standard men-on-a-heist actioner, and a lot of people seem to have dismissed it as such. On the other, however, there’s quite a lot of different things going on here. Almost too many, in fact, as arguably the film doesn’t have time to explore them all. There’s a distinct thread about the treatment of veterans in the US — that these guys have been used up and spat out, and now struggle with their mental health and/or to even make a living in regular society. It also ties this into some “warrior code” mentality, which I’ve heard said is quite a realistic depiction of the mindset these kinds of guys have in real life, but does come across as a bit macho bullshit at times here (there’s a scene where they’re camping in the jungle, bemoaning that they’re the last of their kind, etc).

Men mid-mission

As well as these themes, there’s some surprise genre mash-ups going on, too. Nothing too radical, but the film doesn’t play out as I expected (vague-ish spoilers follow). At the start, it’s has almost a Sicario vibe, particularly in a sequence where Pope leads a violent raid on a gang hideout. Then it gets stuck into what the trailers promised: a bunch of military professionals pulling off a heist. Naturally, it doesn’t all go according to plan (no good heist movie has everything go according to plan!), and as the guys struggle to make their escape the film makes a hard turn into Treasure of the Sierra Madre territory, which I did not see coming. It doesn’t dig into the psychology of greed anything like as much as that film, but as the team trek through the jungle and feud amongst themselves, the film takes on a “jungle adventure” aspect I wasn’t expecting. This is where I think those claims of it being just a “standard” kinda military-men-on-a-mission movie are particularly wide of the mark.

Apparently the film has been struggling through development since 2010, presumably after screenwriter Mark Boal won his Oscar for The Hurt Locker. That film’s director, Kathryn Bigelow, was originally attached (she’s still credited as a producer), and the film also bounced around a couple of different studios (before winding up at Netflix) and churned through a long list of possible cast members (according to IMDb, they include the likes of Tom Hanks, Johnny Depp, Denzel Washington, Sean Penn, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg, Will Smith, Tom Hardy, Channing Tatum, Mahershala Ali, and Casey Affleck).

Ben Affleck, pictured with his ties to the DC Universe

I feel like it ended up in a pretty decent place, however. The five guys are believable as ex comrades, and it’s all very well put together, with slick but not flashy direction from J.C. Chandor, helmer of the excellent All is Lost, plus Margin Call and A Most Violent Year, neither of which I’ve seen but I’ve heard are good. Triple Frontier does nothing to besmirch his rep. It’s crisply shot by DP Roman Vasyanov — like the direction, not excessively flashy but still strong, including some great aerial stuff. Apparently this is the first film to use the full 6.5K resolution of the ARRI Alexa 65 camera, which is why it retains the camera’s unique aspect ratio of 2.11:1. In truth, it doesn’t make much difference, because it’s near as dammit the 2:1 that’s so popular among other Netflix productions, but that works for me.

Triple Frontier doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but I think some of the commentary dismissing it as mere standard fare has done it some disservice. As a heist/action movie it’s more than competent, with some turns and developments that keep it surprising and fresh, and visuals that reward seeing it on the best-quality screen you can.

4 out of 5

Triple Frontier is available on Netflix now.

All is Lost (2013)

2014 #130
J.C. Chandor | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

All is LostRobert Redford on a boat with no dialogue for over an hour and a half. That’s not a spurious way of describing All is Lost — that is what it is. Well, OK, he does say a couple of words — more or less literally “a couple”, though.

Redford plays “Our Man”, who’s pleasantly drifting around on his small yacht when it strikes a shipping container that’s just floating in the middle of the ocean. Now with a massive great hole in the side of his boat, he has to repair it using what he has to hand. The radio is damaged too, so he can’t call for help. And then an almighty storm rolls in…

It’s hard to succinctly pigeonhole All is Lost. It’s a survival movie, if that’s really a genre; man vs the elements. It’s an adventure movie, a little bit in the old-fashioned sense, as here’s a man who, through no choice of his own, has what you might describe as “an adventure”. He doesn’t have a companion to natter to, which would’ve surely been easier to write and more readily palatable to audiences; nor is there any narration of his thoughts, besides opening with the reading of a letter he will write later, which is, frankly, a needless addition to the movie. Redford doesn’t need to speak, because he conveys his character’s every thought, emotion, fear, indecision, and resolve through his face and his movement. Some viewers may overlook it because there’s no dialogue for him to emote with, but it’s a sublime example of acting.

Indeed, it’s testament to Redford’s performance (much discussed but ultimately overlooked during last year’s awards season), J.C. Chandor’s direction, and the work of the special effects and stunt teams, that the film remains gripping throughout. A bit choppyThrough chance, coincidence, bad luck, but never forced tension-mounting on the part of the filmmakers (at least, not obviously so), our man’s fortunes go from bad to worse to even worse to even worse than that. Despite his best efforts, he’s on a downward spiral, a seemingly irreversible series of unfortunate events. If you ever had an interest in solo sailing, this is liable to put you off.

It all leads to an ending that has proven divisive. I shan’t spoil it, but I was fine with it. I don’t think it’s in any way a betrayal of what’s gone before. I will say that it provides a resolution, rather than leaving things open-ended, which I give away purely because some reviewers have stated a preference for a lack of resolution here. Why? Once our man finds himself in this situation, there are all of three possible outcomes: he gets himself out of it, he gets rescued, or he dies at sea. Not telling us which happens would be a contrivance on the part of the filmmakers — if this were a real story, for example, we’d know which happens, so why deny it in fiction too? I’m not saying unresolved/ambiguous endings are always bad, because I think they do have a place, but this isn’t one of those places. Indeed, I’d argue that to leave it open would have been a cop-out. Fortunately, Chandor is man enough not to do that. As to which of the three aforementioned options he went with, they all seem fundamentally just as likely to me, so I also don’t object to the one he did pick.

SeamanSometimes self-imposed filmmaking limitations lead to an exercise in competency over good moviemaking — “can we pull this off?” rather than “can we make a good film?” Chandor and co do pull their limitations off, I suspect not because someone set out purely to make a film with one character and no dialogue, but because it’s a gripping, exciting, tense movie, carried by a powerful near-silent performance and first-rate direction.

5 out of 5