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D: J.C. Chandor / 125m

Cast: Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund, Pedro Pascal, Adria Arjona, Sheila Vand, Reynaldo Gallegos, Maddy Wary, Juan Camilo Castillo

While working as a private military advisor combating a drug cartel in Colombia, Santiago “Pope” Garcia (Isaac) learns that the head of the cartel, Lorea (Gallegos), keeps all his money at a safe house in the middle of the jungle. Instead of passing on this information to the authorities, Pope returns to the US to recruit four friends, all ex-Special Forces, for a mission to grab the money for themselves. Each of his friends has a reason for going: Tom “Redfly” Davis (Affleck) is a realtor with financial problems; William “Ironhead” Miller (Hunnam) is a motivational speaker who misses being a part of the military; his brother, Ben (Hedlund), is an MMA fighter who’ll follow wherever Ironhead goes; and Francisco “Catfish” Morales (Pascal) is a pilot whose licence has been withdrawn. They reconnoitre Lorea’s jungle hideout, and determine to raid the place on a Sunday morning when his family and most of his men will be at church. Although Ironhead is wounded, the raid is a success, and they get away with around $250 million in cash. Now all they have to do is stay alive long enough to make it back home…

Triple Frontier‘s production history is in some ways more interesting than the finished movie. Originally set to star Tom Hanks and Johnny Depp, and with Kathryn Bigelow directing, delays since 2010 meant that it wasn’t until 2015 that Chandor came aboard and added his own input to Mark Boal’s original screenplay. With Channing Tatum and Tom Hardy having replaced Hanks and Depp at that stage, Mahershala Ali was added to the cast before all three dropped out, and Affleck et al signed on (Affleck even quit the project himself for a while before shooting began). With all this in mind, it’s interesting to re-imagine the movie with those actors in the main roles – and realise that the right choices were made in the end. For though Triple Frontier is ultimately an uneven movie that puts itself in danger of losing its audience’s interest in the final third, its the strength of its final casting that makes the movie so effective. With impressive performances from all concerned – Affleck is particularly good as the morally ambiguous Redfly – the movie plays well when it’s concerned with issues of camaraderie and masculinity (both supportive and toxic), and in showing the levels of trust these men have in each other, even when things are going wrong and blaming each other is a natural response.

The relationships the five men have form the core of the movie, and give it an emotional resonance that most action thrillers never attempt let alone achieve. And Chandor ensures that it’s not all about the money, but more about how all of them except Pope miss being a part of the action. These are men who’ve lost their sense of purpose, their identities now they’re back in the real world, and when the movie focuses on this, it does so perceptively and persuasively. But this is also an action thriller, and for the first two thirds a very accomplished one, with Chandor staging an opening attack on a cartel building with verve and skill, and the raid on Lorea’s house like a chess match with rifles instead of pieces. But then comes the getaway, and though there’s already the sense that it won’t be as smooth and well planned as hoped for, where Chandor and Boal take Redfly and the others leads to a number of surprisingly flat scenes that lack energy and pace, and which feel like the dictionary definition of padding. As a result, a moment of tragedy lacks the impact it should have, and the movie struggles through to an ending that doesn’t carry the dramatic weight that’s expected. Still, it’s a good movie, for the most part, and Chandor continues to show why he’s one of the best directors working today, but this has to be regarded as something of a disappointment.

Rating: 7/10 – as a three-act narrative with both prologue and epilogue, Triple Frontier is only effective up until the end of the second act, when different forces come into play and the focus shifts from being about five men regaining their sense of purpose in the world, and becomes a generic tale of survival against low odds; with ambitions beyond the standard heist movie, it’s a shame then that those ambitions weren’t as well thought out and worked through as they needed to be.