Synopsis – Five former Special Forces operatives reunite to plan a heist in a sparsely populated multi-border zone of South America. For the first time in their prestigious careers these unsung heroes undertake this dangerous mission for self instead of country. But when events take an unexpected turn and threaten to spiral out of control, their skills, their loyalties and their morals are pushed to a breaking point in an epic battle for survival.
My Take – It’s really hard to comprehend with the fact that this film is finally here, mainly as it has been a while since this project was announced. Originally set up at Paramount to re-team director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal following their massively successful Zero Dark Thirty (2012), the film had become a running example of a revolving door based on how talents like Tom Hanks, Johnny Depp, Will Smith, Tom Hardy, Channing Tatum, Maheshala Ali, Mark Wahlberg and Casey Affleck entered talks, mostly signed up and then left.
Soon after Paramount dropped the film and Bigelow too left the director’s chair (though she retains an executive producer credit). This all continued to a point that by any conventional wisdom, this film just shouldn’t have existed.
Now a decade later, the film has released with director J.C. Chandor (A Most Violent Year) helming the project with Netflix (the current savior of the film industry and their visions) backing the film as their first high-profile release of the year, following their recent success like Bird Box and Roma. So was this frustrating path to the screen worth all the trouble? Mostly yes!
While the film will never be accused of reinventing the wheel in the drug cartel, thriller genre it is a mostly satisfying heist-film with enough original twists and man-against-the-elements adventure to keep it interesting. The film has the good sense to take a macho, Expendables-like set-up and turn it inward, but it just doesn’t go far enough to reach its full potential.
While it straddles the line between the unapologetic cheeses of many other heists films, and the seriousness of Zero Dark Thirty, it never seems to make its mind to lean one way or another. While it gets the job done, like the main characters here, it does so in an extremely sloppy manner.
But what it lacks in creative writing or compelling characters it makes up for with a brutal tension that carries it through its entire run time. This tension is developed in part by desolate locations and situations mixed with what feels like excellent chemistry between most of the main cast, making the whole experience both affecting and thrilling.
The story follows Santiago Garcia (Oscar Isaac), a former military special operative who has been contracted to help the local police in South America to take down Gabriel Martin Lorea (Reynaldo Gallegos), a Latin American drug kingpin. However after two years of unfruitful results, his informant, Yovanna (Adria Arjona), a mule working for Lorea, finally gets him the location to where he has been hiding, along with cash up to $75 million.
As a means to finance his retirement and to take down Lorea once and for all, Garcia sets out to recruit his old team mates, a bunch of disgruntled ex-special forces operatives that include William Miller (Charlie Hunham), whose job is to give motivational speeches to new army recruits, Ben Miller (Garret Hedlund), Williams’s brother and a M.M.A fighter, Francisco Morales (Pedro Pascal), a grounded pilot with a cocaine charge; and Tom Davis (Ben Affleck), their former captain who is now a condo realtor.
If they succeed, the score will total in the millions, with enough money for each man to live happily and healthily. Yet, while the ultimate cost of success starts to rise so does the danger involved in such a heist, and all involved will be left to question whether or not the risk will outweigh the reward.
Co-written with The Hurt Locker writer Mark Boal, here director J.C. Chandor tries to subvert your expectations. He leads you to think it’s going to be an explosive action film but clearly has more on his mind. One of the film’s greatest accomplishments is how confidently it topples the expectations of a wary and weathered audience. It swerves around into strange and wonderful new directions in its remaining hour-and-a-half, piling set-piece upon set-piece, balancing action (of different styles) with deft character work and brazen political ideas.
The film has that ‘something for everyone’ quality that could either work in its favor, as it constantly keeps reinventing itself every 15 minutes; it goes from gritty drug drama to slick heist film, and then transforms into an old-school Western, and ends as a survival thriller/ chase film. Understandably, this may be too much for an audience looking for cheap thrills, but for director Chandor and his cast, it’s an excuse to play in five films instead of one, and to use genre to make important sub textual statements about violence, vengeance and warfare. T
he film also has some genuinely gritty pop to it all and while we’ve seen stories centered around the drug trade before we really have never seen it from this fresh perspective of men who in their own right are all heroes but kind find a way to get back into their normal lives and see this as an opportunity to actually get some value out of the things that they’ve done and have been trained to do.
Here, director Chandor and writer Boal don’t over romanticize the situation at any stage and we see career warriors lose track of what the right reasons are for being in the middle of the chaos that crime and violence of the drug trade tends to stir up.
Amidst the action, the film is also a part-morality tale about selfishness and greed and corruption, part-parable about the perils of military intervention, and the script ensures that this is reasoning behind how the five robbers behave and act during their escape, but more importantly, it never forgets to be an insanely entertaining film. It looks at both greed and sacrifice, with the former coming across more convincing than the latter.
In fact it is greed for money that accounts for the major part of the group’s problems. As one would expect, loyalties are tested with big fights resulting from the clash of personalities. The cinematography here from Roman Vasyanov is also quite stunning, especially the shots from the helicopter of the jungles and mountains. The big crash of the chopper in the middle of the Colombian countryside in the midst of panicking horses is truly well executed. The other action segment where the mules passing along a narrow mountainside path carrying large bags of money is cliff-hanging suspense.
However, what brings this film down is its lack of character development or growth throughout the film. Main characters are introduced and giving a general back story if any at all, and then do not have any dramatic arc or depth to their journey throughout the rest of the film. Doing criminal things for good reasons is tried and tested formula in Hollywood, but the film doesn’t really come up with any insight.
As a result, the leads at times come across as just meatheads that have gone into underdeveloped countries and outright murdered the indigenous population. I don’t think the film is advocating for the actions of these men, but once the shootings begin they are far past the point of atonement; hence why Bigelow’s nuanced direction could have provided a more brazen critique of this sector of masculinity. The film kind of just grits its teeth and pushes past anything other than service-level emotions and reactions.
Another drawback in the film is that you can see some of the seams between writer Mark Boal’s original vision and the presumed additions that co-writer/director J.C. Chandor more than likely threw into the mix. While Boal’s portion of the story is focused on the struggles of the modern veteran, and the pseudo-military raid that these vets launch on a kingpin’s compound, Chandor’s piece feels like a slower, more methodical examination on the aftermath of said decisions.
As a filmmaker, J.C. Chandor, has always been a one who loves to explore the personal and individual toll of events, but the way the film segues into and eventually out of that dip in pacing is definitely noticeable. Patient viewers will likely be along for the ride; however, those expecting the Zero Dark Thirty meets The Expendables energy this film exudes during its first act and a half to be consistently present may leave rather confused.
Yet in spite of the occasional gap in logic the film manages to keep us visually engaged thanks to some solid performances in the ensemble. As expected the five leads do a tremendous job here. Oscar Isaac fares the best paying the lead character that keeps everything in check, while Ben Affleck plays the wild card with obvious shades of grey and dis-balance in the group effectively.
Charlie Hunnam continues to put on strong performances, while Pedro Pascal and Garrett Hedlund are, as you would assume, cool and awesome. Adria Arjona too leaves a strong mark despite a male cast. On the whole, ‘Triple Frontier’ is a flawed yet satisfying action thriller which offers enough twists and turns to keep us thoroughly engaged.
Directed – J.C. Chandor
Rated – R
Run Time – 125 minutes