Way back in the year 2010 – which was, unbelievably, almost a decade ago – director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal were riding high on the success of The Hurt Locker. As a follow up, they collaborated on the development of Triple Frontier. The buzz was huge and Tom Hanks signed for the lead role and Johnny Depp rumored as a co-star.
The project stalled while Bigelow and Boal made the excellent Zero Dark Thirty. Then it stalled some more, Bigelow bowed out to direct Detroit, and Boal’s script was handed over to director J.C. Chandor in 2015. Will Smith entered the mix and then the revolving door of cast members – some signed with official contracts and others just rumored – included Channing Tatum, Mark Wahlberg, Mahershala Ali, and Tom Hardy.
Eventually, Netflix bought the movie, Bigelow stayed on as executive producer, Boal’s script was preserved, and the cast finally locked with Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund, and Pedro Pascal.
Good lord. I’m exhausted from that history lesson. Are you still reading this? Anyway, the development is relevant because when you have that caliber and depth of talent circling a project for so long, it would be a reasonable assumption that the project would be worth the wait. Between The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, and Detroit, the Bigelow/Boal partnership has been nearly perfect.
Oh alas and alack, we probably would have been better off if Triple Frontier had never escaped the fiery grips of Development Hell because, honestly, I’m not sure that there’s a version of this movie – no matter the cast or director – that could have elevated its exceptionally mediocre script.
The story is about an ex-special forces operative named Pope (Oscar Isaac) who has been advising the military in Colombia in its fight against the cartels. A unique window of opportunity presents itself and Pope recruits four of his military buddies (each serving as the walking, talking human exaggeration of a cliched character trait) for one last mission: kill a cartel boss, free the people from his tyranny, and also steal all of his money. Their service to their own country was noble but unrewarded. Time to cash in.
Therein lies the biggest problem with Triple Frontier. Moral ambiguity.
The cartel leader is presented as a cartoon thug. He loves money, brutality, and control. He’s the sort of character who, if better developed, could have at least been a compelling obstacle. Instead, he’s a mere plot device, so thin that his easy (and early) death is inconsequential. He’s evil. He’s dead. Whatever.
The ambiguity comes from the heist itself. The first act tries its best to set up a conflict of principles within and between each of the characters. They’ve lived loyally for flag and family, so there is some surface tension as they negotiate the implications of becoming thieves. But once they commit to the heist, there isn’t a sense that they’ve crossed a red line. Stealing is horrible when the victim is innocent. But what about when you take from a monster?
We, the audience, should feel like there’s something serious at stake for our heroes (or anti-heroes, I suppose). Instead, there’s a hollowness to the whole thing. The squad methodically snipes bodyguards, grabs the cash, and burns the evidence. You don’t feel bad for the cartel. But you don’t really cheer for the protagonists either, even though they probably do deserve the payout. You’re sort of just stuck as a casual observer.
Oh, by the way, I should tell you at this point that Triple Frontier is probably not the movie you’re expecting. The heist, which dominates the marketing, is really only the beginning.
The bulk of the runtime is devoted to the consequences and complications of the heist. There’s an interesting, if generally underdeveloped, dynamic at play as the characters’ greed literally weighs them down. It’s played out in a heart-stopping aerial escape sequence in the Andes – a sequence that is so much better than the rest of the movie that it feels almost out of place.
The rest of the movie plays out as a lightweight survival thriller where nothing else feels so dire or exciting that you find yourself fully invested in the outcome. An unexpected fatality tries to usher in new levels of chaos, but the intended emotional gut punch hasn’t really been earned. I can see it coming across as a viable shock on paper, but the matter-of-fact delivery undercuts its impact.
One last critique before I offer a few fleeting thoughts of praise.
Considering the production budget, the cast, and the sweeping landscapes, this is the kind of movie that should feel epic. But because of certain photography decisions and geographic narrative elements that keep the action focused on the isolation of the main characters, the movie feels small. Not intimate, just small. There’s an eerie disassociation at play and, as a viewer, you feel like the movie is toying with your modes of perception. It’s not. It just isn’t particularly well made.
Okay, the good stuff.
Though the characters aren’t particularly well written, three of the five main performances give the film some much-needed gravitas (which was certainly the intention). The best comes from Pedro Pascal as the group’s pilot, Catfish.
After a clumsy introduction that tries to position him as a second-rate H.M. Murdock from The A-Team, Pascal takes control as the group’s conscience (such that there is one) and makes the most of his screen time. He’s on the verge of a major career breakthrough with the new Star Wars show, The Mandalorian – and he deserves the higher profile.
On the other hand, Ben Affleck has been in a bit of a rut. His last directorial effort, Live By Night, was a dud and he unceremoniously left his role as Batman (first as director, then screenwriter, then star). His personal life also has made headlines. In Triple Frontier, as de facto team leader Redfly, he channels what one can imagine is real-world weariness into a role that demands it. He’s the most believable character of the bunch.
And Oscar Isaac, as the not-so-subtly named Pope, gets the most material to work with. He does a great job navigating his character’s fluctuating moral compass. It reminded me in some ways of his role on Paul Haggis and David Simon’s phenomenal mini-series Show Me a Hero.
I feel bad not mentioning Charlie Hunnam and Garrett Hedlund. Both are fine. Both could have been played by any muscular actor. Both deserve better roles.
One final thought. I did appreciate that the back-half of the movie avoided some obvious genre cliches. The drama doesn’t feel too familiar. And it doesn’t feel too interesting either.
In the end, you could say that Triple Frontier is a movie in two parts – an anti-cartel military thriller and a heist movie with moral consequences. For the former, watch Denis Villeneuve’s much better Sicario instead. For the latter, check out David O. Russell’s under-appreciated gem Three Kings.
Or watch Triple Frontier. If you do, Netflix will continue making movies at this scale. Some won’t be great, but then a masterpiece like Roma rises up occasionally. It’s probably worth the trade-off.