Heists, dirty cops, shifting loyalties, betrayal, constant tension, the Russian mob, more bullets than you can possibly count, copious explosions, an incredible cast, and the guy who directed both The Road and The Proposition. Ask me what I want in a movie and I’ll likely read off most of the things I just listed, all of which figure prominently in director John Hillcoat’s new crime film, Triple 9. All of the pieces are in place, and though this is a solid, grim offering, one that I enjoyed well enough, Triple 9 never offers any surprises and watches like scraps of other crime movies stitched together in ways that don’t always fit. There are shades of Heat, Sicario, Training Day, and more, but the end result is a scattered, if exciting, dark, and passable thriller.
Triple 9 starts off strong, with, while not an entirely unique sequence, a fierce, gritty action scene. A daring bank robbery, a chase, elite, tactically trained criminals, a hail of gunfire, and even a bit of dreamy, red haze of smoke thrown in for good measure; it’s a tense, taut way to kick things off.
The perpetrators behind this score are Mike (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Russell (Norman Reedus), two former special ops comrades, Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Jorge (Clifton Collins Jr.), two corrupt cops, and Gabe (Aaron Paul), a former cop and Russell’s brother. Caught up in the services of the vicious boss of the Russian mob, Irina (Kate Winslet having a damn fine time in a nasty, villainous turn—the first time we meet her she tosses a Ziploc baggie full of teeth into the trunk of a car with the bound and gagged victims then came from), they must pull of the ubiquitous “one more job,” a near impossible task, even for this crack crew, if they want their freedom.
Named for the police code that means Officer Down, this figures prominently into the plot of Triple 9. The only way they can get the window of time they need to pull of this heist before the police crash down around them is to kill a cop, which will draw every last unit in Atlanta—everyone wants a shot at a cop-killer. For this task, they select Marcus’ new partner, Chris (Casey Affleck), a newbie/former Marine/Woody Harrelson’s drunk, drugged out veteran cop’s nephew.
A complicated as that sounds, the plot of Triple 9 is even more involved and sprawling, and things have a tendency to get lost in the mix. Mike has a child with Irina’s sister, an almost wholly unused Gal Gadot—she’s exclusively there to have a sultry accent and wear short skirts. Chris has a wife (Teresa Palmer), who serves no other purpose than so he’ll have something to lose. Outside of Irina, who is the only real female character, those are the roles for women that Triple 9 has to offer—there’s also a junkie prostitute, strippers, one female detective with a handful of lines, and Michael Kenneth Williams as a transgender stripper for one scene. To call this macho is an understatement.
Woody Harrelson’s Detective Jeffrey Allen serves no real purpose in the plot. He shows up to chew the scenery, drink, smoke, and snort everything in sight, and say lewd things. His side of the story, which runs parallel to he main narrative thrust, just kills all the tension and momentum the other thread works to create.
On their own, many of the characters are fine, primarily thanks to a number of excellent performances that give them more meat than what’s on the page. Chiwetel Ejiofor may be the only character with any depth at all; Kate Winslet is quietly ferocious in a way she’s never had the chance to be on screen; Anthony Mackie is the only one with any moral qualms about their plan; Clifton Collins Jr. oozes sleaze and smarm and an obscurity that makes him hard to read; and Casey Affleck, chiefly through his physicality as he only has a handful of lines himself, gives Chris his own gum-chewing, laissez faire badass texture. The relationships between these characters, however, are never developed or fleshed out in any consequential way, and never grow or evolve beyond happenstance connections.
There’s little to no background for most of these individuals, which works in some cases, but not in others. We primarily know of Chris’ military background thanks to of a Marine Corp sticker on his car and because he mentions being in “hairy” situations before. That’s all you really need to learn to know that he’s being underestimated, which Marcus realizes once Chris finally gets the chance to show his skills in a stunning extended shootout that runs the length and breadth of a housing project. But, for example, with Marcus, this strategy of doling out as little as possible leaves his motivation fuzzy and unclear. There’s no explanation as to why he would fall in with a crew like this. Jorge is at least a dick, which is enough, barely, to make his involvement believable, but with Marcus, there doesn’t appear to be any reason why he’s mixed up in all of this.
When Triple 9 sticks with the heist crew, that’s where it peaks, where the real interest lies. It’s relatively simple to see exactly how things are going to unfold, but, though it wavers from time to time, the tension is fairly constant throughout, propelling the action forward. Atticus Ross, who teamed with Trent Reznor on the music for the likes of The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, provides a throbbing, pulsing score that ratchets up the pressure, and, at its best moments, resembles early John Carpenter.
Triple 9 is, without a doubt, gritty in its violence and subject matter, but the overall aesthetic also lends it a 1970s exploitation-style feel. The footage borders on grainy, there are lots of dim, luxuriously lit dive bars and high-fallutin’ restaurants, and damn near half of the film is soaked in a deep red hue by cinematographer Nikolas Karakatsanis (Cub, Bullhead, and more).
While John Hillcoat is a talented director, one with a firm grasp of the dusty, dirty, and bleak, there’s simply not enough room in Triple 9 to do all of the elements and characters justice. As the film barrels towards its uneven conclusion, too-convenient events proliferate in the script as it attempts to tie up each and every last dangling loose end like its checking off boxes. While what you see on screen can be fantastic—the action scenes, especially, are enough to warrant a watch—but as the film ends on a freeze frame, you can’t help but think Triple 9 could have been something great instead of just okay. [Grade: B-]