There was a time when mid-budgeted action movies ruled the box-office and turned a tidy profit in the process. That time was the 1990s as films like The Rock (1996) and Con Air (1997) paired intriguing ensemble casts and crazy fun action on a $75 million budget that tripled and quadrupled at the box-office. Hell, Speed (1994) only cost $30m, and not only did it earn back ten times that much in theaters but the movie still kicks all kinds of ass. Newer examples still pop up periodically, but for the most part, studios have grown more partial to bigger and bigger action movies where the payoff *needs* to approach half a billion dollars or more to be considered a success. Most don’t, and the money that could have funded ten smaller films instead goes in the ledger with red ink.
The point is, when a mid-range action movie does come around it’s something to pay attention to and hopefully, if it’s good, to cherish.
Triple Frontier is a movie to pay attention to.
War is hell, but returning home offers no guarantee that the fight is over. Santiago ‘Pope’ Garcia (Oscar Isaac) has been stubbornly hanging on to the rush of danger and combat, but he wants an out. When he catches wind of the jungle location where an elusive cartel head secures his money the idea of robbing the bad guy fully enters his mind. He has the where and the when (a small window where the loot is lightly guarded), and all he needs is the team to help him. Pope calls on four ex-Special Forces buddies who’ve hung up their assault weapons while they try to make normal lives work with little success. Tom ‘Redfly’ Davis (Ben Affleck) is divorced and struggling as a realtor, Francisco ‘Catfish’ Morales (Pedro Pascal) recently lost his pilot’s license after a drug bust, William ‘Ironhead’ Miller (Charlie Hunnam) is getting by giving empty speeches to fresh recruits, and his brother, Ben ‘Not Cool Enough for a Nickname’ Miller (Garrett Hedlund), is cashing in while bleeding out in the MMA ring. It takes a little finagling, but the men soon say yes to a score big enough to set them up for life.
What could possibly go wrong?
There’s no arguing the cast of Triple Frontier as it’s practically impossible not to be a fan of at least one or two of these guys, and if nothing else the long-standing conspiracy theory that Hunnam and Hedlund are the same person can finally be put to rest. (And no, the CG budget isn’t big enough for this movie to be pulling some kind of Winklevoss scam.) The talent pool continues with director/co-writer J.C. Chandor (All Is Lost, Margin Call) and co-writer Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker, 2008; Zero Dark Thirty, 2012), but for every element that works here there are two others that continually pull the film down to the level of the generic and overly familiar.
The story is one we’ve seen many times before as a team of “good” guys moves forward on a justifiable theft they hope will ease all of their worries for life, and it doesn’t take much to guess that things go horribly awry. If you didn’t predict it going in seeing the heist unfold before the film’s halfway mark is a big clue. There’s still over an hour left at that point as the men struggle to hold themselves and their bounty together against enemy fire, gravity, and each other, and it’s here where their varied personalities either step up or reveal themselves as paper thin. Affleck, Hunnam, and Isaac get the most to play with, and they don’t disappoint as their individual character dramas clash and collide. The others don’t fare as well as individuals, but there’s an undeniable charm (for genre fans) to their muscular and skilled men-on-a-mission aesthetic. They’re serious soldiers, and the precision — due in part to Bigelow and Boal’s expertise on the subject — lifts several elements above the generic fray.
Action beats are equally mixed. An early gunfight is well-shot and structured with clarity and an eye towards thrills, and later gunplay is equally charged with tension and precision. The scenes are sometimes hurt by CG, though, with a helicopter sequence, in particular, standing apart for f/x that kneecaps an otherwise exciting and cool crash scene. The natural visuals are attractive and do great work creating the dense jungle surrounding their target and the vast landscapes standing between them and the sea. They find the house easily, but finding their way back home moves from metaphorical challenge to a very real one.
The film pairs an always important reminder about our forgotten warriors with a commentary on responsibility and greed, and the leads do good work moving through the emotions. These men deserve better, and we understand their eventual decision to “use our skills for our own benefit.” Avarice and personal vengeance are enough to buckle even the most well-prepared plans, though, and the same goes for a film that feels content ticking the minimum number of boxes. So when Affleck’s Redfly starts frustratedly yelling “fuck” to an indifferent donkey, we understand his pain… both Affleck’s and the donkey’s.