The premise of Triple Frontier could happily act as a distillation of director J.C Chandor’s career to date. It mixes the men-under-pressure vibe of Margin Call, the battle-against-the-elements tip of All Is Lost, and Oscar Isaac as a criminal of A Most Violent Year. Co written with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty’s Mark Boal (Kathryn Bigelow is an Executive Producer), Chandor’s film is muscular, well made and enjoyable but doesn’t really have the nuance, compelling characters and weight to transcend its DTV actioner premise.
After a Hurt Locker-esque stand-off outside a South American disco establishing Isaac’s Santiago “Pope” Garcia, Chandor and Boal’s script spends the first act getting the ex soldiers together. Charlie Hunnam’s William “Ironhead” Miller is now giving pep talks to young military types, telling tales about strangling a civvie until he pissed himself because he refused to move his car — his big character trait is that he counts everything (43 kills). His brother Ben “Only Character Not To Get A Cool Middle Name” Miller (Hedlund) has been reduced to MMA fighting for peanuts. Francisco “Catfish” Morales (Pascal) is a pilot grounded for a coke rap but has a new baby to support. And Tom “Redfly” Davis (Affleck), the group’s military genius whose been shot 5 times, is now selling condos in a beaten up truck, struggling to pay for his kid — we know “Redfly” is depressed because Affleck wears exactly the same expression he wore during the Batman V Superman junket.
The raid is gripping, tense stuff.
After a programmatic start, things pick up when Garcia spells out his plan: break into the compound of drug king Gabriel Martin Lorea (Reynaldo Gallegos), kill him by any means necessary, then move out with $75 million. There is something entertaining about the way Chandor and Boal depict the group as serious professionals (Howard Hawks would approve) as they map out the logistics, a rarity to see characters presented as intelligent and thorough, not goons spouting one-liners. When it comes (surprisingly early), the raid on Lorea’s base is gripping, tense stuff with twists and turns that are genuinely surprising.
The escape involves an exciting flight over mountains but the peril ramps down rather than up as the group have to make their way to a beach meeting point. The likable cast inhabit the roles but don’t really have much to illuminate in terms of interior lives and character dynamics. As such, the thematic material pokes around the difference between serving your country and serving yourself, doing criminal things for good reasons, but doesn’t really come up with any insight. It’s decidedly pro-military, especially in the way US vets are hard done by post-service, but musters a respect for life and death that an Expendables sequel just can’t manage. The filmmaking craft is also impeccable, with Russian DP Roman Vasyanov giving the film an impressive cold, downbeat look to mirror the tough task in hand. Still with Chandor (and Bigelow and Boal) at the helm, you expect a little bit more.