Once a passion project co-created by director Kathryn Bigelow and her regular screenwriter Mark Boal (both of them previously collaborated in the Oscar-winning Hurt Locker as well as Zero Dark Thirty and Detroit), Triple Frontier has been struggling to get off the ground for nearly a decade. Ever since the project was first announced in late 2010, it has undergone several high-profile casting changes (Johnny Deep, Tom Hanks, Will Smith, Channing Tatum, Tom Hardy and Mahershala Ali were among the names that got mentioned), scheduling issues and budgetary woes (it reported cost around US$80 million at the time when Bigelow was still attached to the project).
Too bad Bigelow didn’t choose to stick around and eventually departed the project in 2015. The project subsequently made way for J.C. Chandor to take over the long-gestating Triple Frontier and here we are — a movie that marks Margin Call and All Is Lost director’s first attempt in handling big-scale production.
On paper, it sounds ambitious enough: A star-studded cast led by familiar faces including Ben Affleck’s Tom “Redfly” Davis, Oscar Isaac’s Santiago “Pope” Garcia, Charlie Hunnam’s William “Ironhead” Miller, Garrett Hedlund’s Ben Miller and Pedro Pascal’s Francisco “Catfish” Morales, as they plan an elaborate heist to rob a drug cartel boss’ (Reynaldo Gallegos’ Lorea) money at his remote house worth US$75 million. Naturally, things go awry where the five ex-Special Forces soldiers find themselves struggling to make it across the triple borders of Peru, Brazil and Colombia with the stolen loot.
Mark Boal, who retains his screenwriting credit along with additional input by Chandor himself, tells a familiar men-on-the-mission story that Hollywood loves to make in the past (think 1970’s Kelly’s Heroes, 1995’s Dead Presidents and 1999’s Three Kings and you’ll get the idea where is this going). If that’s not enough, the movie even echoes an obvious trace of William Friedkin’s 1977 underappreciated Sorcerer being thrown into the mix. Given J.C. Chandor’s major forte in handling character-driven drama, Triple Frontier could have been his most ambitious movie ever made in his career so far. It could have been a muscular piece of character-driven action movie that Hollywood hardly made these days.
And yet, everything about Triple Frontier feels surprisingly generic. Don’t get me wrong. It has all the ingredients here for this kind of movie. It’s just that Chandor’s overall direction doesn’t exactly elevate his otherwise familiar material above its mediocrity level. The movie did pick the right ensemble cast to pull off this kind of physically-demanding roles. Each of them has their own moments but the truth is, Chandor could have done better to dig their respective characters deeper beyond the surface of “five desperate ex-Special Forces soldiers wanting to score big-time for their own personal gains”.
As for the action set-pieces, Chandor proves to be quite a visual stylist, even though there are some scenes get muddled by the inconsistent uses of CG. Still, he deserves a few praises for the opening police raid sequence and particularly, the elaborate heist set-piece. It’s a good thing that Chandor and cinematographer Roman Vasyanov are wise enough to frame the action sequences in a clean and crisp manner without the need for annoying shaky-cam aesthetics.
It’s far from a great movie that I hoped for, given the calibre of the talented cast and crew involved here. This makes me wonder how different the result would it be if Kathryn Bigelow still attached as the director of Triple Frontier.