'Triple Frontier' Review: J.C. Chandor Defies Expectations in Thrilling Netflix Genre-Bender

Triple Frontier might have seemed like just another star-laden Netflix movie on the surface, with enough allure to get millions of people at home to hit play over its first weekend, but lacking any real style or substance. However, in one of the most pleasantly surprising twists of the year, Triple Frontier is not another Bird Box, born with the sole intent of trending online. In fact, Triple Frontier is exactly the opposite of most Netflix films that came before: It's great.

Directed by J.C. Chandor (A Most Violent Year), Triple Frontier dives into the difficult waters of life after military service, focusing on a group of friends who used to serve together, but are now struggling years after returning home. Santiago "Pope" Garcia (Oscar Isaac) has spent his time as a contractor in South America attempting to stop a notorious cartel boss. When he discovers that he can take down the criminal, and steal all of his earnings in the process, Pope turns to his former team to join him in a robbery that, while illegal, will earn them enough money to set their families up for life. Tom "Redfly" Davis (Ben Affleck), William "Ironhead" Miller (Charlie Hunnam), Ben Miller (Garrett Hedlund), and Francisco "Catfish" Morales (Pedro Pascal) all reluctantly agree to join Pope in this venture, despite their concerns with his motives.

There isn't a whole lot of set up to be had here, as the team jumps into their mission rather quickly. Within the first 30 minutes of the film the operation is already underway. As you can guess, things don't go according to plan, but that's about the only thing in Triple Frontier that you'll see coming. What follows, once that mission begins, is a complete subversion of both war and heist movies, one that turns everything you thought you knew about the genres upside down, keeping your curiosity - and heart rate - peaked until the final scenes.

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(Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix)

If there was ever any doubt that J.C. Chandor is a master of his craft, that can now be permanently expelled. Not only do he and cinematographer Roman Vasyanov (Fury, End of Watch) shoot an absolutely stunning film, but Chandor makes excellent use of the style and tropes of the genres he explores to consistently defy all expectations of the audience. What I mean by that is, we've come to expect certain things from a war film. When attention is given to a certain character in a certain situation after certain events with certain musical queues, it's pretty easy to guess what's about to happen.

If you've watched even a couple of popular war films in the last two decades, you know exactly what I'm talking about here. Those scenes where one guy is alone behind the rest of his team, singing or talking to himself after just getting into an argument with his buddy, and the camera turns to show off the wide mountain range at his back: You know that something bad is about to happen. What Chandor does so effectively in Triple Frontier is create those moments time after time, without giving you the conclusion you're prepared for. The moment will arrive, you'll hold your breathe, and it will pass on with no mention of the terror that could have been, something that is true of so many instances in the real world. Not only does this strategy tip the scales of our imaginations, but it also creates the most meaningful sequences of the film when we least expect them. Once these scenes are in the rearview mirror, and we start to breathe easily again, that's when Chandor really pulls the rug out from under us and delivers true surprises, something that is increasingly rare in the era of modern war films.

By playing with these expectations, Chandor is able to create a truly unique pace that moves confidently, and on its own terms. There's a pattern of building suspense first, then delivering necessary exposition and character building, keeping your attention throughout, rather than attempting to set up every plot point and relationship in the first hour or so and then heading into the jungle for an action-heavy third act. This pattern begins with the film's opening scene and continues through to the end, offering a little bit of slack at a time before quickly pulling back in. It's reminiscent of Jarhead in this way, where the action is often further away than you realize, but that never means things are less exciting.

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(Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix)

People will certainly get drawn to this movie for it's all-star cast, and the ensemble doesn't disappoint. Hunnam, Pascal, and Hedlund all turn in solid, emotional performances, on par with the consistently solid work the trio have become known for. (They also make one hell of a team and will hopefully work together more often.) Affleck is billed as the film's lead, which he does admirably when called upon. But make no mistake, this is Oscar Isaac's movie, and he is every bit the star we hope for him to be. Whether it's in the middle of a shootout or chatting with his old pal's teenage daughter about her father's recent struggles, Isaac carries the weight of the world in his eyes, just daring you to look away.

I'm going to be honest, I didn't expect too much from Triple Frontier. That one's on me. I can underestimate Netflix movies all I want to, but J.C. Chandor uses this film to show me, and the world, that he's truly a force to be reckoned with, and I'll be damned if I second guess him again.


Rating: 4 out of 5

Triple Frontier will be released in select theaters on March 6th, and on Netflix around the globe March 13th.