Release: Friday, February 26 ,2016
Written by: Matt Cook
Directed by: John Hillcoat
Triple 9 could be a really great film. I’m not saying that to be facetious or hypothetical, like, “I have all these suggestions to make it better and here’s how you do it,” or “I’m seeing this tonight and I hope it’s going to be great.” I mean I’m genuinely not sure if it was any good or not. It’s such a bland, flavorless take on the crime genre that it’s difficult to remember anything about it, even days later. But the film is well-produced, so that counts for something. Right?
John Hillcoat, who has distinguished himself with gritty, typically criminal-infested features that tend to smother audiences with the hopelessness of the situation, isn’t exactly out of his element here, turning Atlanta into a bubbling cauldron of deception, corruption and a whole lot of violence. The rather convoluted plot revolves around a group of corrupt cops and legit criminals who are blackmailed by the nasty Irina Vlaslov of the Russian mafia (and of course when you mention them you naturally think of Kate Winslet) into taking on “one more job.”
Of course the mission won’t be simple; not even close. Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is in it deep as he has had a child with Irina’s sister (Gal Gadot), and Irina won’t let him see the money or his kid until he and his cronies have recovered crucial government documents regarding the status of Irina’s mafioso hubby. (Really, there’s nothing cute or overly affectionate about any of these relationships, I just think that ridiculous word seems to fit given we’re talking about ridiculous things like Winslet as a Russian mob boss). Michael employs his thug friend Russell (Norman Reedus) and Russell’s younger brother Gabe (a much more comfortable looking Aaron Paul) to help carry out the job but they’re unsure of how to do it.
‘Triple nine’ is code for “officer down,” a call that results in any and all units in a given area to respond to the scene. Michael and his crew, which includes crooked Atlanta cops Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Franco (Clifton Collins, Jr.), realize they can use a triple nine call as a distraction to carry out the heist elsewhere. Marcus has just gotten a new partner, Casey Affleck’s genuine good-guy Chris Allen and Marcus nominates him as the officer who should act as the distraction (i.e. he wants to kill him). To confuse readers more (or just to make sure I have included all major names involved here), Allen has an uncle on the force, Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson) who is determined to get to the bottom of a bank heist case perpetrated by Michael and company as part of an earlier favor to the Russians.
Essentially what Triple 9 boils down to is a matter of trust. A grimy, ominous milieu established from the opening shot of the city leaves little to the imagination. This isn’t a place where we’re going to like many of the characters we come up against (the sheer quality of the ensemble cast ensures this isn’t a deal-breaker). Nor are they the people we can count on to do the right thing. In this Atlanta, you can’t trust a soul. All of that is well and good; the simmering tension underlying Ejiofor and Winslet’s interactions — I stop short of saying relationship because there’s simply not enough time in this movie for relationships to truly be established — make for some of the film’s more interesting moments. But no one has much of an identity. Everyone either starts off miserable or ends up that way, or they end up dead.
In the vein of David Ayers’ infinitely more brutal Sabotage, which saw a team of DEA agents being picked off one-by-one after their unit was compromised, Triple 9 is a no-win situation in which the characters we are introduced to drift further and further away from us. It’s next to impossible to care about these trigger-happy thugs. The mood is perpetually dour, and most of the actions our (many) characters take rarely surprise, and because they don’t, several significant double-crosses don’t register with the power they ought to.
Performances are universally good; they’re nothing special but they’re functional. (And for what it’s worth, Winslet makes that accent work!) Instead it’s more problematic with how forgettable substantial chunks of their collective effort become. The film boasts a few impressive shoot-outs, particularly one in an abandoned warehouse — why do the good ones always take place in The Warehouse? — but for whatever reason, the bulk of the film, all of the talky stuff and detective work going on in the background just never quite connects. Conventionality isn’t a crime but I think I’ve finally made up my mind on this: Triple 9 is neither a great film nor a terrible one. It’s just something that’s there.
Recommendation: Violent, dark, confronting but still somehow boring and uninspired, Triple 9 undoubtedly prefers the art of storytelling over character presentation. Despite such a strong cast it’s kind of ironic that those characters get so forgotten by the end. But hey, at least this film has Woody Harrelson in it. If you are a completionist then see it for him, but everything else there’s either MasterCard or much better movies.
Running Time: 115 mins.
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