Blistering urban action and a game, A-list cast are weighed down by a dizzying, intrusive plot.
As is the case with Quentin Tarantino‘s The Hateful Eight, you’ll find no heroes in John Hillcoat‘s likewise numerically titled Triple 9, a solid, well-acted crime-thriller in which nearly all of its dozen-or-so main characters carry a badge, though about half of them are crooked. These slimeballs use their position in law enforcement as a guise for a big-time heist operation; their non-criminal counterparts on the force are bent on smoking out who’s behind the bank robberies as the perps hide in plain sight just one desk over. The “good cops” aren’t as straight-laced as you’d imagine, however: Policing the rough Atlanta streets keeps their skin and wits tough and their scary obsession with putting the heist-pullers away could put innocent people in danger.
By all accounts, it was Hillcoat’s name that first compelled the stacked, A-list ensemble to flock to the project, and it was the complex, unpredictable, multi-protag script that got them to stay. Each talent—Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Winslet, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Anthony Mackie, and the list goes on—makes a big impression; this is an ensemble piece through and through. But the egalitarian approach to the ensemble doesn’t work as well as it does in Hateful Eight or even Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight because the characters’ murky motivations, combined with the dizzying, often disorganized plot, make the experience as a whole a little hard to follow. There’s too much to keep track of, too little to latch onto.
A team of trained professionals led by Michael (Ejiofor) pulls off a bank robbery in the heart of Atlanta. They’re working (reluctantly) for Russian mob boss Irna (Winslet), who’s tasked them not with bringing her bags of loot but with retrieving a safety deposit box she needs to free her husband from prison. Jorge (Clifton Collins Jr., terrific as usual) and Marcus (Mackie) currently work as cops and Michael and Russel (Norman Reedus) are ex-Special Forces. These four are cool as cucumbers but Russel’s strung-out younger brother, Gabe (Aaron Paul) nearly causes the caper to go South. Going forward, as they resume their lives post-heist, the sloppy Gabe will more than likely become a liability and the rest of the team knows it.
Draped in woefully mismatched, fake-fancy garb, Irna is a welcome change from the familiar crime boss archetype, at least in tone and, of course, gender. Considering this role and other, villainous turn in the Divergent series, it seems the Oscar winner’s developing a taste for the wicked. She’s really good at it: The blood boils when we learn Irna’s holding Michael’s son—who also happens to be her own nephew (Gal Gadot plays his mom)—captive, blackmailing him to reassemble his team and carry out yet another risky operation, breaking into a Homeland Security facility of all places. To pull it off, the team resorts to using a “triple-nine” (code for “officer down”), distracting local law enforcement as they snatch Irna’s precious cargo in the shadows.
They need a good (unsuspecting) cop to be the “triple-nine” and Marcus nominates his new partner Chris (Affleck), who’s just transferred from another division. The new guy has just been branded a walking dead man by his own partner. One of the many x-factors in the scheme is Chris’ uncle (Harrelson) is a detective on the force himself and is leading a tireless investigation on Michael’s undercover gang. When the shit hits the fan and Chris sits in Marcus’ crosshairs, it’s amid a tornado of unexpected betrayals, murders and changes of heart that change the complexion of the “triple-9” altogether.
The plot’s too intricate and the dialogue is too expository to give the character work the clear focus it deserves. The performers are terrific and enrich their characters even when their screen time is woefully limited but one can’t help but wonder how much smoother the movie would flow with less attention dedicated to the plot. There’s no central character, after all, so every moment the actors get is incredibly precious. Fortunately, the actors make the best of their constraints, with each of their characters ultimately sticking in your mind in one way or another. None of them (besides Winslet) are playing against-type, so they all seem comfortable in their roles, which works greatly in the movie’s favor.
Aside from the acting, the movie’s greatest strength is the action sequences which, despite being preposterously elaborate and chaotic are presented with great care. The action is surprisingly easy to follow, and Hillcoat’s gift is that his set pieces, as they move briskly along through interiors and exteriors and different neighborhoods, simultaneously immerse us in the gritty surroundings and thrill us with expertly staged gunfights, foot-chases and fisticuffs. As far as the action is concerned, the presentation is slick, slick, slick. If only the narrative would take a few steps back and let the human drama and gunfire take more of the spotlight, Triple 9 could have been tremendous.