If Triple Frontier had a brain (and it doesn’t) it would probably think of itself as a slick update of Sorcerer (itself a slick update of The Wages of Fear). Not so much by way of plot, but certainly in its goals as a story. Meaning, this is a tale about men with little to lose and everything to gain, embarking on a shady mission in unforgiving terrain. Similar to Sorcerer, this brooding adventure lacks a playful spirit, but the former finds a way to wear such emotional turmoil as a badge of honor, while the latter comes across as rather plain. A bit of a shame too, considering the talent at its core.
It’s really not until the final act that the issues become clear, as the first two acts, as workmanlike as the filmmaking is, still manage to be quite exciting. There’s a pall of danger which hangs over the entire affair, and so long as you’re engaged with the action, it functions perfectly, even if there is little to care about by way of characters. But I get ahead of myself.
Directed by J.C. Chandor (A Most Violent Year), and co-written by he and Mark Boal (Zero Dark Thirty), Triple Frontier tells the tale of a disbanded group of mercenaries led by Santiago ‘Pope’ Garcia (Oscar Isaac). After obtaining some ill-gained underground information regarding the location of Gabriel Martin Lorrea (Reynaldo Gallegos), an Escobar-esque drug kingpin who is never far from his product or his spoils, Pope gathers his old crew together to complete an off-the-radar mission to arrest Lorrea and steal his money. After years of working for the military with nothing to show for it but a useless skill set with a side of injuries, why wouldn’t they skim a little off the top of a never ending drug war and live the high life? It should be an easy move, too. Tom ‘Redfly’ Davis (Ben Affleck) will work recon, and William ‘Ironhead’ Miller (Charlie Hunnam) will cover security alongside his brother Ben ‘We Didn’t Nickname This Guy’ Miller (Garrett Hedlund). Francisco ‘Catfish’ Morales (Pedro Pascal) is the pilot who, because he’s such a badass or something, doesn’t actually have a pilot’s license.
Triple Frontier is torn between doing the character work required to make this sort of story fly, and moving the film forward in a consumable pace. It meets itself somewhere in the middle by only giving a handful of characters any background, and even then chooses to tell us what their lives are like rather than showing. It’s Redlfly who needs this job the most, but he’s also the only one with anything outside of his own well-being to lose. He’s a divorced failure of a real estate agent with two daughters whom we never see. It’s aggressively basic, but it’s also the only true source of drama outside of simple survival. Why do these other guys need the money? All seem to be doing okay for the most part, even if they aren’t as satisfied with their lot in life as they want to be. Join the club, eh?
It’s not long before the plan is kicked into gear, but at the same time it’s too long, especially since convincing the gang to get back together for “one last job” takes one of two distinctly un-cinematic forms:
- Do this dangerous job with me.
~ Hell yeah! I’m in!
- Do this dangerous job with me.
~ No, absolutely not.
- Pretty pleeeeease.
~ Ok, I’m in!
Everything is planned down to the most minute detail, but it all still goes awry. Now, our “heroes” find themselves on the lam from some dangerous people, all the while toting some severely inconvenient — and highly illegal — loot.
By committing to neither a thorough introduction of its characters, or a breezy dismissal of it in exchange for narrative thrust, this relatively straightforward movie sure does feel like it takes some time to get going. But when it does, it’s quite a bit of fun…until it’s not.
Where the film excels is in scene blocking. Even though this is headed for a simultaneous theatrical and streaming release, there are sequences that will certainly benefit from the big screen experience. Chandor’s sense of geography is admirable. On a moment by moment basis, it’s no easy task to tell adjacent kinetic narratives for five different characters spread across either a large expanse of terrain or amidst the labyrinthine halls of a drug mansion. Excellent too is the cinematography by Roman Vasyanov (End of Watch), which captures the utter hopelessness of a jungle setting, the unforgiving nature of a rocky cliff, or the mundanity of suburbia.
Affleck is also worth noting. He isn’t given a large amount to do (which is still more than the rest of the cast), but he embodies “tired, under appreciated middle-aged man” very well. The camaraderie he shares with Isaac feels real, but it also serves to highlight a huge missed opportunity in the script. Namely, why aren’t these guys more fun to hang around with? If this band of brothers really goes as far back as the film claims, why don’t they feel like more of a unit? The talent is there. I have no doubt that they are all capable of being a somber version of your typical Ocean’s crew, yet it never gels. Amidst all the misfortune, a few jokes exchanged between them certainly couldn’t hurt.
At the end of the day, this is exactly the film I expected going in, and I think that most who see it won’t be disappointed. Perhaps in a streaming format (with the ability to pause and go grab a sandwich) it will feel less like it runs out of steam midway through the third act — less like a tale of disparate characters who only happen to be near each other by chance. Still, the segments of Triple Frontier that move, move well, and I found myself feeling enough tension to give this minimal thriller my approval.