Friday, March 15, 2019

Triple Frontier, Thankfully, Evokes Treasure of the Sierra Madre More Than Lone Survivor


According to Santiago Garcia (Oscar Isaac), it's time to get the band back together. By band, I'm referring to Garcia and his group of former soldier buddies which used to consist of Captain Tom Davis (Ben Affleck), Captain William Miller (Charlie Hunnam), Ben Miller (Garrett Hedlund) and Francisco Morales (Pedro Pascal). All five of these men, in addition to being the lead characters of the new Netflix motion picture Triple Frontier, served the U.S. during extensive tours of military duty that saw them all taking all kinds of injuries but now, with all of that in the past, all of them (sans Garcia, who's working in Brazil trying to track down a drug lord) have returned to conventional civilian lives full of woes ranging from financial issues to run-in's with the law.

This is not the life any of them wanted to end up in but Garcia has a proposal for all of them that could improve their lives ten-fold. His plan is for the five of them to use their skills to kill a Colombian drug lord by the name of Lorea and then proceed to take all of his money. They're not doing this for any national government, they're doing this for themselves. That's why it's time to get the band back together. This central premise could easily be narrative fodder for some kind of jingoistic Peter Berg joint dropped into January but thankfully, J.C. Chandor, the filmmaker behind such great films as Margin Call and A Most Violent Year, is able to take this premise in a more interesting direction.

Chandor and Mark Boal's screenplay paints this premise in a more morally complex direction that takes a plot that could have turned into Lone Survivor into something more reminiscent of The Treasure of Sierra Madre, particularly in the second half of the story which revolves around all five of the leads becoming their worst selves as they try to get out of the country with all their loot intact. Even the adversaries that these characters face in the second and third act have a welcome sense of nuance to them as they eschew having Garcia and company square off against grotesque caricatures of "foreign evil" and instead have them frequently encounter teenage soldiers who have understandable vengeful grudges held against our main characters. These individuals are portrayed as such tragic human beings rather than broadly evil people that the climax makes a point to have the lead characters constantly refuses to kill any adversaries that cross their path.

I'll let people actually from the regions Triple Frontier takes place in judge whether or not these foes in the second half of this movie actually avoid being harmful stereotypes but the decision to go in a more nuanced direction in regards to both the antagonists and the morality (or lack thereof) of the primary heist mission is one of the best parts of the screenplay for Triple Frontier. Also standing out in this script is the well-paced nature of the proceedings, the opening sequences, for instance, does a mostly solid job of introducing the main group of characters in a manner that allows their individual personalities to be properly established without also making these introductory scenes feel like an overly expository slog.

The character stuff does have a tendency to lack substance once the actual mission gets underway, particularly in regards to the character Francisco Morales who doesn't have much of a concrete personality (his main character feature is his skills as a pilot) for the morally compromising South American mission to clash up against, which leaves him inhabiting various different types of personalities as the movie goes on. There's also a second act character beat involving Tom Davis that see's the character going to such a dark place that it feels like his character should be radically altered afterwards but oddly enough, it doesn't seem to hinder or change him all that much. Such stumbles grounded in character work are a shame and do leave Triple Frontier feeling lacking as a character-centric drama.

But as a darker man-on-a-mission action movie with more moral complexities than you might expect though, Triple Frontier does get the job done reasonably well, especially since director J.C. Chandor graduates from indie filmmaking to larger-scale action heist movie filmmaking with impressive flair. The numerous action scenes are shot in a cohesive fashion that ensure one won't be bombarded with incoherent shaky-cam while the decision to film the hand-to-hand violence between humans in either a no-frills manner or even just leaving it off-screen entirely is a great way to visually reinforce Triple Frontier's thoughtful storytelling sensibilities. If you want to evoke The Treasure of Sierra Madre in your story, you can't also have slo-mo shots of soldiers being "bad-ass" in taking out enemy soldiers.  It's also delightful to see that Chandor maintained his affinity for pronounced bright colors from his work behind the camera on A Most Violent Year, bright greens just pop off the screen in Triple Frontier and it's a splendid sight to see.

Chandor's strength with getting great performances out of a top-notch cast is also alive and well from his past productions. The always reliable Oscar Isaac is in rare form handling the multitude of emotional rollercoasters Santiago Gracia goes through, Ben Affleck, like in Gone Girl, does strong work playing a darker version of his typical on-screen everyman persona and Garrett Hedlund proves to be endearing as all heck in playing the light-hearted member of the main group of former soldiers. These kinds of memorable performances constantly captured my interest in Triple Frontier, a movie that doesn't quite become as contemplative as it clearly wants to be, but admirably aiming so high on a thematic level is one of the ways this feature ended up being better than I expected. It's no Margin Call, but Triple Frontier is solid men-on-a-mission action fare.

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