‘Triple 9’ Review: Average Crime Fare With an Above Average Cast
There are several big mysteries in the neo-noir thriller Triple 9 but none bigger than this one: How the hell did they get a cast this great to show up for a movie this mediocre?
The opening credits of this movie read like an All-Star team of macho modern Hollywood: Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Clifton Collins Jr., Aaron Paul, and Woody Harrelson (plus, in smaller supporting roles, Kate Winslet, Gal Gadot, Teresa Palmer, Norman Reedus, and Michael Kenneth Williams). It’s an exceptional roster of talent — and an overqualified one. Enlisting this assemblage of Oscar winners and nominees to tell a sordid but familiar tale of bad cops and bank heists is a bit like hiring Stephen Hawking to teach a first grade science class. Sure, he can do it, but is this really the best use of his talents?
The story begins with a bank heist of exceptional efficiency. The crooks — Ejiofor, Mackie, Collins, and Paul, with Reedus as their driver —execute their plan to near-perfection. They wear ski masks and sunglasses to protect their identities, and speak in Spanish to make the cops think they’re connected to a drug cartel. In just a handful of minutes they retrieve a safety deposit box from the bank’s vault and return it to the woman who hired them, the wife (Winslet) of a notorious Jewish gangster who’s being held in a Russian prison. Winslet’s Irina promised the men a fortune for the theft, but she withholds payment and demands they perform a second and even trickier job, which she claims will enable her to spring her husband from the Gulag. Ejiofor’s character, Michael, has a son with Irina’s sister Elena (Gadot); Irina, who operates out of a meatpacking plant (bringing new meaning to the phrase “Kosher butcher”) blackmails him into taking the job. If he ever wants to see his son again, he’ll steal this second MacGuffin for her.
Already the screenplay by Matt Cook is weaving a web of familial responsibility; of men and women driven to do terrible things to be with the people they love. And there’s more; the cop investigating the first robbery is Detective Jeffrey Allen (Harrelson); his nephew Chris (Affleck) is a new transfer to the Atlanta PD. He gets partnered with Mackie’s character who, it turns out, is a dirty cop. And the only way Ejiofor, Mackie, and the rest can give themselves enough time to pull the second heist is with a “999” — police code for a cop killing. The naive and uptight Chris is the perfect target, but he has a family too (including Palmer as his eternally patient wife).
Triple 9 has the broad contours of a complex story about guilt and honor, but not the details; those contradictory motivations never become more than the excuse to make a gritty crime thriller. Exploring them more fully might have distinguished the movie from so many others like it. How does Ejiofor feel about his son? How does Winslet feel about her husband and his brutality? What’s Affleck think about this new job and the horrors he witnesses on the streets? The narrative is too busy and the characters too bottled up to ever go beyond the surface.
The cast doesn’t elevate the material, except perhaps Harrelson, whose drunken loudmouth is the one note of levity (and unpredictability) in the film’s otherwise unrelentingly sour worldview. Hillcoat, who previously directed The Proposition, Lawless, and the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, specializes in movies of handsome bleakness. Triple 9 is similarly grim; its version of Atlanta, all abandoned housing projects and blighted inner city, isn’t that far removed from the broken world of The Road, and everyone in it is angry, violent, and looks like they haven’t showered in four or five days. (The characters are literally gritty.)
This sort of ultra-dark crime picture is commonly described as “hard boiled,” but that adjective feels insufficient for Triple 9, which burns away any sense of hope until only misery and suffering remain. A cop movie, and particular a noir, doesn’t require abundant sunshine or an upbeat message, but it helps if there’s at least a reason driving the pain and heartbreak. Very few people in Triple 9 deserve saving or redemption, except perhaps for Chris and Michael’s children, who are little more than living props. The heists and chases and shootouts are skillful, and there are a couple tense will-they-or-won’t-they sequences once Michael’s team targets Chris, but the emotions undergirding all of this remain buried beneath the action, leaving an attractive and well-cast picture about not very much, except that central question which remains unresolved.