One of the few contemporary American filmmakers who has not yet made a bad film, JC Chandor continues that winning streak with 'Triple Frontier', a gripping, tautly-paced action film that feels familiar and new at the same time. It’s a heist thriller and a survival drama rolled into one.
What begins as a plan to locate and apprehend a most wanted Latin-American drug lord soon turns into a desperate fight for survival when one character makes a weak choice that puts his as well as everyone else’s lives at risk.
The nail-biting tension generated as a result brings to mind the films of Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal are involved as executive producers in this film).
Like Chandor’s earlier films A Most Violent Year and All Is Lost, the film draws inspiration from some of the acclaimed classics such as The Wages of Fear (or its remake Sorcerer) and The Treasure of Sierra Madre.
It is Oscar Isaac’s Santiago “Pope” Garcia that initiates the film’s events. He has been on the tail of a cartel member named Gabriel Lorea for years, and he has now struck a deal with the Brazilian police force to take him down.
When he realises that he can’t do it alone, he makes a visit to each of his ex-Special Forces buddies — Tom “Redfly” Davis (Ben Affleck), William “Ironhead” Miller (Charlie Hunnam), Ben Miller (Garrett Hedlund), and Francisco “Catfish” Morales (Pedro Pascal) — in the hope of forming his own Ocean’s Eleven/The Expendables. Reluctant at first, they are lured by Garcia’s proposition because they all have bills to pay and they miss the good old days.
A tip from an informant has provided Garcia with not just Lorea’s whereabouts but also the millions of dollars locked away in his house. When Garcia and gang uncover the actual location of the loot, they realize that there is more in there than they can chew, and it will take more than one military helicopter to carry it all.
It’s in the middle of this situation that an invisible shift in leadership happens. When Davis (Ben Affleck), a figure whom everyone looks up to, makes a last minute move, everyone, including Garcia, has no option but to go along. What ensues is pure insanity and things get so worse that it becomes increasingly difficult to guess which one of them would get out in one piece. The entire mission becomes a test of morality.
Despite employing familiar templates, Chandor keeps things moving at a brisk pace, taking us from one unforeseen situation to another. The infiltration of Lorea’s hideout, in particular, reminded me of the opening sequence of Sicario or the finale of Zero Dark Thirty.
Cinematographer Roman Vasyanov uses the cold and wet exterior shots to conjure an atmosphere of dread and uncertainty. Sometimes the image of a lone SUV on an empty bridge heading towards the massive mountainous jungles can induce more anxiety than a crowded freeway, and it immediately evokes Vietnam-set films like Apocalypse Now.
Affleck and Isaac are particularly good, as frustrated men who think they didn’t get their due despite serving their country with the utmost dedication and winning medals for bravery.
These men are reminiscent of characters in some of the early Sidney Lumet films like Serpico and Prince of the City. They are neither black nor white. You understand their justification for doing what they do but you don’t necessarily agree with them.
One moment you’re rooting for someone and in the next, you’re not sure if you should be. When they finally get what they deserve, you can’t help but nod in agreement because it’s only fair. Affleck’s Davis is more or less the modern day version of Humphrey Bogart’s character from The Treasure of Sierra Madre, but unlike the Bogart character, there is a human side to Davis’ greed, and given his circumstances, one can’t help but feel a modicum of sympathy. It’s not every day that you see a character who evokes two opposite feelings at the same time.
One thing that 'Triple Frontier' gets right is a palpable sense of brotherhood and camaraderie that’s absent in most films of this variety — one could call this a thinking man’s Expendables. While some may find the lack of distinct qualities in the characters a bit bothersome, it makes perfect sense because a certain level of detachment is required from the viewers. It is clear that this film was not intended to be an acting exercise. The actors are only required to convey their desperation, not to make an exuberant display of their acting prowess, and Boal and Chandor succeed in doing exactly that.
'Triple Frontier' is now streaming on Netflix.
Film: 'Triple Frontier'