Triple 9 (2016)

The code on the street is never black and white

With a filmography of ultra-bleak titles such as The Proposition (2005), The Road (2009) and Lawless (2012) already under his belt, well-respected Australian director John Hillcoat turns his fascination with nihilism to the U.S. streets of Atlanta. Why Atlanta? I don’t know, I guess it was cheaper than shooting in Los Angeles or Miami. A familiar but watchable mishmash of good cops, bad cops and tattooed ‘scary looking’ Hispanic dudes (the Russian mob thrown in for good measure), Tripe 9 fails to live up to the heights of Hillcoat’s earlier efforts; in all honestly, it feels as though it were cooped up by someone like David Ayer, End of Watch (2012), a guy who’s pretty much made a living by churning out these kinds of ultraviolent entertainers.

Deadpool's uncool, less-famous brother
Deadpool’s uncool, less-famous brother

When the film opens we meet Michael Belmont (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a former special ops ‘architect’ who is in the midst of a high stakes robbery — arguably one of the picture’s best scenes — working with his military comrade Russell Welch (Norman Reedus), Russell’s ex-cop deadbeat brother Gabe (Aaron Paul), and two still serving police officers, Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Jorge (Clifton Collins Jr.), as they steal a very important safety deposit box for a Russian-Israeli mobstress, Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet). After pulling off the (somewhat) successful heist, Irina coerces the crew into another, more difficult job by using Michael’s son with her sister Elena (Gal Gadot) as leverage. In order to carry out this second gig (which involves breaking into a Homeland Security building), Belmont and his cohorts decide to kill a cop to buy themselves some time, as a ‘triple nine’ (the code for an ‘officer down’) will distract the rest of the force (every car responding to the call) giving the crew enough flexibility to get what they need and escape, scot-free.

As luck would have it, Marcus is conveniently assigned a green new partner, Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), who also happens to be the perfect candidate for the gang’s bloody distraction. Alas, if the thieves had actually bothered to do some research, they would have discovered that Chris is the nephew of the cop investigating their earlier break-in, Sergeant Detective Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson) — talk about a coincidence, huh!

To the film’s credit, Hillcoat’s keen sense of pacing and unusual choice of story structure keep this otherwise problematic flick alive. The fact that our ‘protagonist,’ Affleck’s Allen, is set aside for large chunks of the narrative had me wondering where the screenplay by newcomer Matt Cook was going. Sadly the answer to that statement is ‘nowhere particularly new.’ Beyond the stellar opening, reminiscent of Michael Mann’s 1995 thriller Heat, and a riveting police raid that concludes in a thrilling on-foot chase, Triple 9 is a sluggishly dull over plotted caper, one that’s hauling a heavy ball and chain, failing to satisfy come its flat, lackluster conclusion. Thankfully, the gritty cinematography by Nicolas Karakatsanis, The Drop (2014), is visually pleasing with the director of photography using arresting reds (particularly the crimson anti-theft dye that explodes in the opening raid) and dirty under-lit interiors to striking effect.

Waiting for members to join GTA Online Heists ...
Waiting for members to join GTA Online Heists …

Even so, the killer cast — a number of big names from both film and television — most of which aren’t capable of delivering a ‘bad’ performance, ensure that Triple 9 remains grounded. The ever reliable Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave (2013), is a steal as Michael Atwood, the mastermind behind the team’s frantic robberies while Anthony Mackie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), brings his usual charm to proceeding as the corrupt street-wise officer Marcus Belmont, the 37-year-old adding depth to his paper thin character; this however, partly due to the fact that the script actually gives Mackie an inner struggle to tinker with. Norman Reedus from the small-screen sensation The Walking Dead (2010) is criminally underused as Michael’s ex-army buddy Russell whilst poor Aaron Paul has his hands tied as Russell’s brother Gabe, a role that’s awfully similar to that of his trashed-up Breaking Bad (2008) persona, Jesse.

Casey Affleck, Gone Baby Gone (2007), looks jaded as our unconditionally moral protagonist Chris Allen, possibly wondering why he was robbed blind of a better project elsewhere, in which he could’ve played a more substantial role, whereas Woody Harrelson, Zombieland (2009), is essentially playing himself, so much so that his character might as well have been named Woody Harrelson instead of Jeffrey or whatever.

Moreover, the entire female line-up is completely wasted. Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs (2015), shoula, coulda stolen the entire show as Irina Vlaslov, the queen bee of a Russian-Israeli Mafia, instead she underplays a role that again, shoulda, coulda been more memorable. The talented Teresa Palmer, Warm Bodies (2013), is given (literally) nothing to do as Chris’ wife Michelle (although something tells me that a lengthier cut of the film would have fixed this problem); what’s more, given that viewers spend next to no time with Chris or his family, it’s difficult to fear for his life when he’s eventually targeted for termination. Last but not least, Gal Gadot’s, Furious 6 (2013), part as Irina’s sister Elena is so throw away, I’m convinced she was solely cast because of her Israeli background, that and the reality that Hillcoat probably thought she’d look bangin’ in a swimsuit — I second the latter!

'I asked for a beer ... not a Bud Light!'
‘I asked for a beer … not a Bud Light!’

Look, I understand that director John Hillcoat is probably trying to say something about masculinity and capitalism, all within a contemporary setting, but none of this really comes through. At best, the abrasive Triple 9 works as a mediocre but ‘passable’ heist thriller. Starting out strong but losing steam the longer it runs (there are solid bursts and fragments throughout) it’s clear that everyone involved is simply just going through the motions. This being the case, I doubt that Triple 9 will harm the careers of anyone involved as they’ve all probably moved on to bigger and better projects. Likewise, so should you.

2.5 / 5 – Alright

Reviewed by Mr. Movie

Triple 9 is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia