It was a debut you could only dream about. Margin Call (2011), J C Chandor’s first feature as writer and director, had a cast to die for and netted him an Oscar nomination. Not bad for a first timer. All Is Lost (2013) and A Most Violent Year (2014) cemented his reputation as a director who delivered strong stories with equally powerful characters – including one who hardly ever spoke – and each film was strikingly different to its predecessor.
Cue the sound of hands rubbing when Netflix announced its release date for his latest, Triple Frontier, his first film in the director’s chair for five years. Especially when it wasn’t only his name attached to it: he was re-united with his A Most Violent Year star, Oscar Isaac, the cast also included Ben Affleck, Charlie Hunnam and Garrett Hedlund, the executive producers were Kathryn Bigelow and regular collaborator Mark Boal and Boal had also co-written the screenplay with Chandor. Now that’s what you call a line up and it was one that sent expectations soaring.
Perhaps a little too high, because this represents something of a dip for the usually consistent Chandor. Sure, he’s on different territory again, but this time round he doesn’t reach anywhere near the heights of his previous offerings. Affleck, Isaac, Hunnam and Hedlund are joined by Pedro Pascal as a group of former special forces operatives, now finding life outside the military is far from what they’d hoped. Isaac is the only one who’s retained some links with his former life and decides to go after an elusive South American drugs baron, firstly to wipe him out and secondly to take the megabucks stashed away in his mansion. That way they can all live the lives they believe they deserve. And they collect as much cash as they can – which where their problems start.
It’s patently obvious from early on that this is never going to go to plan. The moment when they take off in a helicopter to fly over the Andes with a massive net of money dangling below says it all. And, indeed, it turns into a battle for survival, not just in terms of the inhospitable landscape but also as far as their relationships with each other are concerned. That money has a lot to answer for. While this is new territory for Chandor, it’s familiar for the audience: tracking down a drugs lord has certainly been done before and the heavy handed signposting doesn’t help when it comes to creating tension. But there are surprises and twists amongst the characters, especially in the dynamic between Affleck and Isaac at the centre of the story. It’s Affleck who has the most dramatic arc, with the money turning into a dangerous obsession which proves to be the root of all the group’s evils.
Frustratingly, there are some interesting ideas which remain under-developed. The camaraderie of the men while they were in the military doesn’t get the emphasis it deserves and their reaction to life once they’re out of uniform – its reality compared to their expectations – begs a bigger question about how society treats returning soldiers which isn’t explored anywhere near enough, leaving the audience hanging in mid-air.
Triple Frontier also has a macho stance that feels out of step: women play little or no part and, when they do, it’s in a deeply conventional way. That makes it feel dated and awkward but for those who want something undemanding to go with their beer and pizza, then it will do the job. But that’s another convention, isn’t it? In which case it suits the film perfectly because, ultimately, it’s bound by them from start to finish.
Freda Cooper | ★★ 1/2
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Drama, Thriller, Crime, Adventure | Netflix , 13 March (2019) | Dir. J C Chandor | Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund and Pedro Pascal.