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Non-Review Review: Triple Frontier

Triple Frontier feels very much like a J.C. Chandor grab bag. And that’s no bad thing of itself.

The film runs on a variety of different concepts and ideas that run through Chandor’s other films. On a purely plotting level, the idea of a story about five guys trapped alone in the wilderness trying to survive on hostile terrain evokes the survival drama of All is Lost, albeit with more men carrying more weapons. The thematic underpinnings of the story, particularly its preoccupations with the dangers of greed and the consequences of unchecked avarice, resonate with Chandor’s earlier work like Margin Call or A Most Violent Year. There is a sense in which Triple Frontier feels of a piece with the body of work that Chandor is building for himself.

Even more broadly, Triple Frontier feels like the kind of older sort of film that rarely gets made in the current studio system; an ensemble cast dropped into a fairly standard premise, anchored in the recognisability of the actors rather than the familiarity of the intellectual property. Triple Frontier is a film build around the closest thing that modern Hollywood has to star wattage. The film reunites Chandor with Oscar Isaac, who anchored A Most Violent Year and the secondary lead role is given over to Ben Affleck, who is arguably one of the rare remaining movie stars. There is no small irony in the fact that Triple Frontier should end up on Netflix, despite being the sort of mid-budget, actor-driven, basic-concept action thriller that studios used to churn out on a regular basis.

Triple Frontier is perhaps Chandor’s weakest film. It lacks the raw urgency of Margin Call, the desperate intimacy of All is Lost and the claustrophobic anxiety of A Most Violent Year. However, it is still a well-constructed survival parable driven by a likable cast and confident director with a clear affection for an older style of Hollywood film-making.

Triple Frontier seems aware of its status as a boilerplate survival thriller. A lot of the movie’s story feels like it came packaged in a box to be assembled according to instructions that were largely superfluous because these parts fit together so easily anyway. Santiago Garcia has been working in South America to track down a notoriously elusive drug baron. In the pre-credits sequence, Garcia has a breakthrough, discovering the location of the drug lord and his secret hideaway. Santiago understands that he cannot go after such a target alone, and so embarks upon the familiar Seven Samurai recruitment tour, tracking down old friends whose lives have taken different tracks.

The characters in Triple Frontier are largely archetypes, the familiar beaten-down and broken veterans who tend to populate these sorts of mercenary vigilante adventures. William Miller is now an instructor with the United States army, extolling the virtues of service and warning of the toll that violence takes on a man’s soul. His brother Ben Miller is a washed up cage-brawler, still hooked on adrenaline and action even after his service has ended. Pilot Francisco Morales has had his license suspended following a routine coke bust, and so seems to have consigned himself to coaching Ben. Perhaps the most familiar of the bunch is Tom Davis, an expert tactician with a failed marriage and a listless real estate business. “I’m retired,” he insists, unconvincingly.

Of course, there is a difference between “archetypal” and “clichéd.” There is a reason that these story structures and character templates are so ingrained in the popular culture. It is because they are effective. They can work rather well, if they are used well. They provide a familiar framework for telling a story like this. Chandor understands this, treating these rather generic introductions as a means of economically establishing everything that the audience needs to know about these characters before the actual plot kicks into gear. After all, the Seven Samurai might have codified the “assemble a team” montage, but it was three-and-a-half hours long. Triple Frontier runs just over two hours. Naturally, it is more economical with plot and character.

There is a familiarity to the story as it develops. Garcia has been nursing an obsession with this drug lord for quite some time. As he draws the other four characters into his orbit, it becomes increasingly clear that his mission may not be entirely sanctioned through official channels. More than that, there is a sense that Garcia is not entirely motivated by a desire to dismantle the drug trade in South America. Conducting reconnaissance and concocting a plan to execute the drug lord and seize the luxury villa in the middle of the jungle, Garcia just comes out and articulates an idea that had been hanging over the group. Of his superiors, he suggests, “Maybe we don’t tell them, and we do this thing ourselves.”

This is a familiar twist, but an effective one. It also feels very much in keeping with the thematic ideas that interest Chandor as a director. Both Margin Call and A Most Violent Years are stories of the line between capitalism and criminality; the kind of crime that takes place in boardrooms or on the street. Triple Frontier explores that theme through the prism of the military. The central characters of Triple Frontier have all been trained by the United States government, and turned into weapons. This has taken a tremendous toll on them. Miller’s opening monologue is an extended meditation on that, touching on the way in which military service fundamentally changes a person and the lure of using those skills as a means to personal enrichment.

The characters in Triple Frontier are understandably somewhat embittered by the way that they have been treated. Although some are hesitant to admit it, they are all eager to use the skills that they have been given to take something back. “It’s like they just take your best twenty years and spit you out,” Davis laments. Garcia rallies the group behind him by demanding, “The question is do we ever get to use our skills for own benefit and actually change something?” As with Margin Call and A Most Violent Year, greed is portrayed as the primal and foundational sin, from which all further transgressions must branch. The sin is not an individual sin, but a cultural one.

As with A Most Violent Year, Triple Frontier is sympathetic to its protagonists, understanding that they exist in a world that is shaped and defined by these forces. Triple Frontier repeatedly reinforces the idea that human life is something that does have a transactional cost and a financial value, even if it probably shouldn’t. One memorable early sequence has the team exploring a house with millions of dollars literally built into the framework. Later on, after a stand-of goes wrong, the team strike a tentative peace with a village elder by paying off the families of those killed. “You pay him for the damage?” Miller asks Garcia. When the relatives of the victims try to stop the soldiers from leaving, the elder proclaims, “These men have paid their debts.”

In its strongest moments, Triple Frontier transcends its fairly standard set-up to play as something of a broad allegory. Despite the constant fear that the squadron are being tracked by the drug lord’s private army, it often seems that they are their own worst enemies. Greed repeatedly leads to bad decisions. Characters repeatedly compromise themselves to earn a little more. Davis is introduced as the most grounded and reasonable of the team in the early scenes, the one with the clearest sense of structure and plan, so there is no small irony that he becomes the team member most aggressively driven by the pursuit of the payday waiting for the team at the end of the mission.

As with Margin Call and A Most Violent Year, a vicious irony runs through Triple Frontier. There is a recurring sense that despite the avarice driving these characters, there is such a thing as too much money. There is a grim humour in the idea that the characters are so aggressively pursuing a completely impractical amount of money. Indeed, it is established early in the film that even the drug lord has so much money that he has nowhere to put it. Repeatedly, the characters find themselves forced to whittle away their massive payday, to take a smaller and smaller cut because there is only so much money that they can carry; the helicopter that will fly the team over the Andes can only carry so much weight, the mules that are carrying the cash can only go so far.

More than anything, this grim moral framework feels like something of a throwback. Chandor is a film-maker who clearly has a lot of affection for seventies American cinema, and his work reflects that sensibility. (Even though it was technically set in 1981, A Most Violent Year still feels like a stylistic and thematic throwback to the iconic New Hollywood aesthetic.) Triple Frontier is less overtly an homage to classic cinema than some of his other work. Indeed, the idea of stranding a bunch of actors in a South African jungle on a mission gone wrong feels more like the premise of a cheesy eighties-style action movie than a bleak seventies-style moral fable. However it is informed by many of the same anxieties as those films; greed, resentment, moral compromise.

These themes are not unique to the seventies. They resonate with the modern moment. Many of the core themes of those great seventies movies strike a chord with current realities: there is a criminal in the White House, America is grappling with the trauma of a massive recession, the scars of a long-simmering war linger on the psyche. It makes sense that modern pop culture is replaying a lot of the seventies; whether in the setting of films like The Nice Guys, the throwback horror in films as diverse as The Conjuring or Hereditary, or even music biographies like Bohemian Rhapsody or Rocket Man. Certainly, broad parables about the dangers of greed are not unique to a single decade, and Triple Frontier is no less relevant for feeling like something of a throwback.

Triple Frontier feels like an older film in other ways as well. The film is not so much populated with characters as with archetypes, relying on the casting to round out the ensemble. This is an approach that feels strangely out of step with modern Hollywood, which is largely about hiring actors to play established and pre-defined characters. (It is telling, for example, how much of the press tour for Triple Frontier was spent talking about Batman and Star Wars.) The idea is that Triple Frontier counts on its five leading men to round out very broadly-drawn roles. This is particularly true with the two lead roles, Isaac as Garcia and Affleck as Davis; Isaac previously headlined A Most Violent Year, and Affleck is positioned as an opposite pole within the structure of the film.

All of this feels like the kind of movie that has been squeezed out of contemporary Hollywood by the twin extremes of the hundred million dollar blockbusters and the micro budget indies. Triple Frontier is an actor-driven mid-budget film built around a fairly standard premise. (It is interesting that the film was first developed as a vehicle for Tom Hanks and Johnny Depp.) It could easily have been a smaller summer movie in the late nineties, perhaps even directed by Tony Scott. As such, it is interesting that the film had to find a home on Netflix, a reminder that the streaming service is increasingly a home for “the kind of movies that they don’t make any more.” It is also interesting, in this context, that Netflix seems to be giving the film an old-fashioned press rollout.

Triple Frontier is a solid and sturdy survival thriller that meditates on the age-old theme of greed and compromise. It is a movie that largely coasts on the charm of watching a skilled director and an engaging cast navigate a familiar story structure. It’s satisfying and well-made, even if it’s never as exceptional as its protagonists believe themselves to be.

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