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Director: John Hillcoat
Writer: Matt Cook
Stars: Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Woody Harrelson, Kate Winslet
The opening moments of Triple 9 sees five armed and masked men storm an Atlanta bank and violently break into the vault to steal a single safety deposit box. They make their escape in a well-planned and executed getaway but a red dye pack fires in the box and they are forced into a potential showdown on the highway. We learn right after that two of the thieves are cops and they are working with the Russian mob who, after they are in the clear, decide that the job wasn’t enough and demand they do one more.
The leader of the gang is Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor) whose son is basically held hostage by Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet), a nasty mob leader whose sister Elena (Gal Gadot) is the mother of Atwood’s boy. To further motivate Atwood, they murder one of the gang, sending a powerful message that convinces the men to take the job, despite the odds against success. They decide in order to make the heist work, they need to kill a cop, thinking the distraction will give them the extra time needed to make it work. Meanwhile, Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie), a member of the gang and a detective on the Atlanta police department gets a new rookie partner named Chris Allen (Casey Affleck) who isn’t so easy to get along with, though a mutual respect develops, especially after a tense shootout with a vicious, heavily fortified gang. Even still, Allen gets targeted as the 999 call for the plan to work, but on the day of the heist, things take a different turn.
Directed by John Hillcoat (Lawless), Triple 9 has a lot going for it, most especially the outstanding cast, which further includes Woody Harrelson and Aaron Paul. There isn’t a bad performance really, with standouts Mackie, Affleck and Winslet the most compelling. Winslet, who has become a kind of chameleon of late, is nearly unrecognizable again, like in last year’s Steve Jobs, and used sparingly here, but effectively, menacing while barely speaking, a harsh character that reveals much with very little. Affleck has consistently been one of this generation’s most gifted actors, his turn here as a cop with a chip on his shoulder is another great role. Mackie is strong too, and while the cast is overly-decorated with pronounced personalities and affectations, all are very good.
The issue is the story and direction, both of which are a bit of a letdown. Obvious inspirations come from Michael Mann‘s work on Heat and Miami Vice and more, and Matt Cook‘s script is laden with cop cliches and tropes that fail to lift this to where it tries to reach. It has plenty of violence but not the fear that should accompany it. While the actors are all very convincing, they are shot in such dark shadows, it’s often hard to see them or the action, a choice by Hillcoat that undermines much of the experience. Worse though is that while the performances are all solid, the characters devolve into unlikable, unmemorable cardboard cutouts, with broad, obvious traits that are drawn with thick lines. This is a problem most especially in the last act when plots converge and characters meet but without the weight necessary to be effective. A pivotal moment between Winslet and Ejiofor, which should have been the film’s highlight, is instead devoid of any tension as we just don’t have any investment in the two characters. A nice twist comes at the end, but once it’s revealed, is played out like a poorly made homage to Martin Scorsese.
What was promised at the start falls flat afterward. The things copied from Mann are good but lack the substance the original’s have. A film like this needs intrigue and a sense of mystery and dread, none of which are presence. While the last heist is clever, it doesn’t resonant as it’s lost in a flood of lengthy shootouts and too many scenes of characters sitting about with nothing to say other than for us to see them demonstrate their flaws. Moments like a scene where Harrelson’s cop gets angry at his staff for doing nothing while his intuition tells him something big is about to happen is at best hokey, but worse a lazy attempt to give him more depth. Triple 9 looked to be a boundary pushing next level piece of filmmaking when announced, but instead is a rather standard cop thriller with too many great characters and not enough for them to do.