TRIPLE FRONTIER (2019) – Average Actioner Enjoys Strong Finish

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triple frontier

TRIPLE FRONTIER (2019) is Netflix’ latest foray into the big budget movie business. The film opened theatrically on March 6 and then streamed on Netflix on March 13, meaning it’s available to everyone at home even while it’s playing at theaters.

Netflix did the same thing with the Oscar nominated movie ROMA (2018). It’s a move that is getting plenty of backlash from Hollywood, as heavy hitters like Steven Spielberg have spoken against this kind of release. I guess because they fear it takes away from box office dollars or delegitimizes the industry.

All I know is that as someone who’s living on a strict budget, I liked the fact that this past weekend I didn’t have to pay $13.00 for a movie ticket to see TRIPLE FRONTIER. I watched it in the comfort of my living room. I’m sure we haven’t heard the end of this debate, but for now, I’m on the side of Netflix. Unless they simultaneously provide every theatrical release on their streaming service, I doubt it’s going to influence my movie going habits all that much.

But back to TRIPLE FRONTIER.

TRIPLE FRONTIER is an action thriller about a group of special forces operatives who decide that after years of service they just weren’t compensated properly, and so they agree to rob a drug dealer to give them the financial security they need. Hmm. Doesn’t sound like the wisest idea to you? Me, neither, which is a major problem I had with this movie.

Anyway, Santiago “Pope” Garcia (Oscar Isaac) has been chasing down a drug lord named Lorea for a long time but has yet to catch him. At long last, with the help of one of his contacts on the inside, Yovanna (Adria Arjona) Pope finally locates the whereabouts of Lorea, inside a compound deep in the jungles of South America. Better yet, Lorea keeps all his money there as well, an insane amount that could make several people rich beyond their wildest dreams.

And so Pope rounds up his former war buddies, folks who nowadays are struggling financially even after their years of service, and offers them the chance to remedy all that. If they do this one job, take out the drug lord and steal his money, they’d be set for life.

The group includes William “Ironhead” Miller (Charlie Hunnam), Tom “Redfly” Davis (Ben Affleck), Ironhead’s brother Ben (Garrett Hedlund) and Francisco “Catfish” Morales (Pedro Pascal). After some heavy-duty soul-searching, the group agrees to do the job, which of course is no surprise or otherwise we wouldn’t have much of a movie!

That being said, it seems like a pretty dumb idea, and for these guys to be in on it so easily I thought strained credibility.

Anyhow, they set out to the jungles of South America where even with all their professional experience, things, of course, do not go as planned.

The best thing TRIPLE FRONTIER has going for it is its cast. With three very strong leads, the film survives a mediocre first half before its shifts into high gear for its latter stages.

Ben Affleck receives top billing although his character Redfly isn’t really the main character in the film. Redfly is the oldest of the bunch and at first seems the wisest. In fact, the others don’t want to go forward with this mission unless Redfly is in. Redfly is also the character who is suffering the most financially, struggling to support his teenage children.

Affleck is fine in the role, and his character’s plight makes his decision later to jeopardize the mission by taking extra money make sense.

The central character in the film however is Pope, played by Oscar Isaac, as he’s the character who brings the team together and continually pushes them to get the job done, even when the odds stack up against them. Isaac is a talented actor who’s been in a lot of really good movies, films like OPERATION FINALE (2018), ANNIHILATION (2018), and EX MACHINA (2014). Of course, he’s most known nowadays for his portrayal of pilot Poe Dameron in the new STAR WARS movies.

Isaac is excellent here in TRIPLE FRONTIER, and for me, his was the best performance in the film. You get the idea that this is something Pope wouldn’t have done ten years ago–actually, none of these guys would have— but now he seems to be driven almost by anger that even after years of putting their lives on the line, they have nothing to show for it. He’s almost obsessed with the mission, and his obsession stems from the need to seek justice for himself and his friends.

None of these guys come off as greedy.

Charlie Hunnam is an actor I have mixed feelings about. For the most part, I like him as an actor, but there are times when I find his performances grating. For example, I enjoyed him a lot as Jax Teller on the TV show SONS OF ANARCHY (2008-2014) but by the show’s final season, I had grown so tired of Jax’ character and Hunnam’s performance that I almost couldn’t watch it any longer.

His performances in the movies THE LOST CITY OF Z (2016) and KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD (2017) were both very good, yet I can’t say that I enjoyed him all that much in either CRIMSON PEAK (2015) or PACIFIC RIM (2013). For the most part, here in TRIPLE FRONTIER, he’s very good. I certainly believed that his Ironhead character was a special forces officer.

Both Pedro Pascal and Garrett Hedlund round out the cast nicely, and it’s a good thing that these five guys deliver the goods because the film is pretty much focused on them and them alone from beginning to end.

One flaw in the film, however, regarding the cast, is that Adria Arjona who plays Pope’s contact Yovanna isn’t given much to do at all. Her character is reduced to not much more of an afterthought, which is a waste of Arjona’s talent. Arjona has starred in the TV series TRUE DETECTIVE (2015) and the hard-hitting horror movie THE BELKO EXPERIMENT (2016). She’s excellent in her few scenes here, but had her character been included more, the story would have been even better.

As it stands, the story is a mixed bag. The first half of the movie is rather slow and not all that interesting.

The screenplay by Mark Boal and director J.C. Chandor is stuck in familiar territory with its tale of folks seeing a huge loot of money as the answer to their life’s prayers. Boal, who wrote the screenplays to the superior military movies THE HURT LOCKER (2008) and ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012) covered the rogue aspect of the military with more nuance in those films than he does here.

Things pick up for the second half of the film when the story jettisons its soul-searching and finally becomes an exciting action thriller. From the moment the robbery begins to afterwards, when things continually prove more difficult than expected, the story remains riveting.

It’s also during the film’s second half where director J.C. Chandor fares better as well, as he crafts some very exciting scenes, including a harrowing helicopter ride over a towering mountain range, a dangerous mountain climb, and a thrilling car chase through the jungle.

TRIPLE FRONTIER  is an okay action thriller. Its second half is much better than its first, and while it’s well-acted by its five main male actors, the absence of a major female character is certainly noticed here.

If you like testosterone-filled action movies and don’t mind a sprinkle of conscience thrown in for good measure, you probably will enjoy TRIPLE FRONTIER, although it’s not quite as hard-hitting as these types of action films need to be, nor is it as thought-provoking as it tries to be. The result is a rather average actioner that benefits from its three male leads and the fact that it certainly finishes stronger than it starts.

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EYE IN THE SKY (2016) Contrived But Effective

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eye in the sky poster

If you could save the lives of hundreds of people who will perish in a terrorist attack, but by doing so, take the life of an innocent little girl, would you do it?

That’s basically the question asked in EYE IN THE SKY (2016) a taut thriller in which the powers that be wrestle with this exact dilemma.

Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is coordinating a mission via drone cameras to locate members of an elusive terrorist cell in Kenya.  Piloting the drones in the air are two American pilots, Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox).  Powell also has a man on the ground Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi) who controls a smaller drone which is able to take interior pictures of the compound.  It’s this drone that not only locates the terrorists but reveals that they are about to conduct a suicide mission.  Suddenly, the “capture” mission becomes a “kill” mission.

To complicate matters, a nine year-old girl sits out front of the compound selling bread for her family. As a result, pilot Steve Watts requests that Colonel Powell verify with her superiors that they have the clearance to conduct a mission that will cause lethal collateral damage.

What follows is an oftentimes terse study in diplomacy, politics, and military positioning as the various powers-that-be wrestle with the decision of just who will be the one to give the official green light to a mission that will no doubt kill an innocent little girl.  And it’s all decided upon from the relative comfort and safety of situation rooms across the globe, miles upon miles away from the action.

This would all be terribly disturbing if it wasn’t so contrived.  I had difficulty wrapping my head around the notion that a government worth its salt would even consider letting a terrorist group armed with suicide bombs walk away, if the collateral damage was simply one life.  It’s a great essay question for a philosophy class, but as a plot in a movie, it wasn’t convincing.

Still, the story put forth in EYE IN THE SKY is timely and relevant.  It’s just not always believable.  It asks important questions in this day and age where warfare can be conducted by drones.  And the screenplay by Guy Hibbert does create three-dimensional characters who struggle with the dilemma they face.

Of course, the high caliber of actors in this one also helps.

Helen Mirren is superb as Colonel Katherine Powell.  Her take on the situation is simple:  the terrorists must be taken out.  The innocent girl’s inevitable death must be accepted.  If not, they will have the blood of many more innocent victims on their hands if they let the terrorists escape.

Both Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox are equally effective as the pilots who want no part of killing an innocent girl.  Paul, who was phenomenal on TV’s BREAKING BAD as Jesse Pinkman, has been excellent in every film I’ve seen him in since.  I hope he continues to land film roles and that they grow in prominence.  Here, his Steve Watts just wants to do the right thing, and Paul is excellent showing Watts’ anguish when it becomes clear he’s going to have to do something he doesn’t want to do.

Phoebe Fox, who I enjoyed a lot in the horror sequel THE WOMAN IN BLACK 2:  ANGEL OF DEATH (2014) is equally as good as fellow pilot Carrie Gershon, as she shares Watts’ frustrations.

Alan Rickman, in his last live action film role [he lends his voice to the upcoming ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS (2016)] plays Lieutenant General Frank Benson, a military officer who tries to see both sides of the coin but ultimately sides with Mirren’s Colonel Powell.  Rickman also enjoys one of the best bits in the movie, a brief speech near the end where he scolds a diplomat for questioning a soldier’s understanding of the price of warfare.  It’s a great moment.

Rickman, who passed away in January,  looks pale and tired here. Perhaps he was supposed to look this way for the role, but I couldn’t help but think while watching him on screen that he didn’t look healthy.

The movie is dedicated to Rickman’s memory.

Barkhad Abdi, who was memorable as the head pirate in CAPTAIN PHILIPS (2013), is nearly as good here as Jama Farah, the agent on the ground flying the miniature drone, who later risks his life in a futile attempt to buy the little girl’s bread so she can get clear of the area, in one of the film’s more suspenseful sequences.

EYE IN THE SKY was directed by Gavin Hood, who also appears in the film as Aaron Paul’s superior officer Lt. Colonel Ed Walsh, and he’s actually very good in these few scenes.  He’s not bad as the director either.  Hood directed the superhero film X-MEN ORIGINS:  WOLVERINE (2009), a film that most X-Men fans hated, but I really liked.

That being said, EYE IN THE SKY is not a phenomenal movie, nor does Hood hit a homerun with it.  The pacing is somewhat slow, and it takes a while to get going.  More importantly, its main moral dilemma, whether or not to spare the girl’s life, comes off as a fake hypothetical situation.  Had we been talking about hundreds of lives potentially lost due to collateral damage, then that might have been more believable.

Still, the actors here do such a good job bringing this situation to life, that I found myself looking past this flaw and going along with the story.

The more relevant topic this film examines is warfare conducted from the comfort and safety of war rooms miles away from the action, but even this theme is not handled crisply.  The movie seems to be implying that this kind of warfare— using drones— is too easy and will lead to generals making ill-fated decisions because they don’t have to worry about the lives of their soldiers on the ground.  However, in this movie, the folks giving the orders are more cautious than if they had soldiers on the ground.

All this being said, EYE IN THE SKY does have some fine moments.  The scene where Barkhad Abdi’s agent on the ground attempts to buy the little girl’s bread to get her away from the missile strike is extremely suspenseful and one of the more exciting scenes in the film.

And every time Alan Rickman is on screen the film seems to become that much more compelling.

EYE IN THE SKY is an inconsistent movie, but it builds as it goes along and finishes strong, ending with an emphatic exclamation point.  And with its talented cast, it overcomes its contrivances to the point where it’s ultimately worth your while.

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