by: S. Scott Stanikmas – Senior Staff Writer
Aussie director John Hillcoat has been slowly building up an impressive resume of films. His knack for taking the gritty and ugly side of things and shining a light on them has earned him praise with films like The Proposition, The Road and Lawless. His newest effort, Triple 9, is a worthy addition to his list of accomplishments but falls just a bit short in the overall scheme of things.
The film starts in full swing, with a crew of men looking to pull off an elaborate heist. Covering themselves from head-to-toe and using a spotter that tracks police response, you can tell that these aren’t your average junkies looking for a score. We soon find out that the thugs actually are comprised of Atlanta Police (Clifton Collins Jr. and Anthony Mackie), former special forces (Norman Reedus and Chiwetel Ejiofor) and a former disgraced cop (Aaron Paul).
The heist in question was to retrieve a lock box for a Russian Mob queenpin (Kate Winslet), whose sister (Gal Gadot) is the baby mama of the head of the crew. But one robbery isn’t enough. The contents of the box are useless without another set of codes currently in the possession of Homeland Security. So instead of paying them, the Russians “recruit” the crew for one more job.
But how can you pull off a job at Homeland Security when the police will be swarming the place? Simple answer – Code 999. A Triple 9 is code for Officer Down and as the bad guys know, any and every cop will rush out to protect and help a fellow brother in blue. And one of the crew (Mackie) just got partnered with someone new to the precinct (Casey Affleck) and would make the perfect sacrificial lamb.
What follows is a muddled story about changes of heart and betrayal and the dangers in trying to be honest and just want to do your job. And while Triple 9 works on a number of levels it’s the one major flaw that keeps me from putting this film in the upper echelon of “dirty cop” films.
One of the best things about this movie is the look and the vibe it sends out. Hillcoat and cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis give this movie a gritty feel, almost like it caught everyone with a grimy sheen of sweat that just wouldn’t come off. From the scheming performances from Mackie, Ejiofor and Collins (who is by and the far the slimiest and shadiest character in the film) to the grainy quality of the picture that washes everything with a tinge of bleakness like an unwashed window, Triple 9 makes you feel like you need a shower after watching it.
The acting is top notch as one would expect from the caliber of people involved in this film. Mackie once again takes a role and runs away with it. Ejiofor is masterful as the frustrated and conflicted “leader” of his pack of wolves. Winslet seems to be having the most fun, hamming it up but never going overboard into parody. Woody Harrelson seems to be having a career resurgence playing cops that are every shade of gray on the color scale. And Affleck is an underrated gem who delivers a performance reminiscent of his star-making role in Gone Baby Gone, proving that he can anchor a major studio film.
While not a typical action film Triple 9 had its fair share of pulse-pounding scenes. The opening bank robbery and the subsequent incursion at Homeland Security are action-packed. The firefight outside of a housing project brings just as much tension as the nerve-wracking walk through the tenement itself. And when the call of “Triple 9” hits the police band we see Woody Harrelson barrel through traffic at high speeds with reckless abandon.
What brings this movie down is the eventual turns-of-heart by a couple of characters on the robbery crew. After being blackmailed by the Russian Mob and being on the wrong side of the law for so long you would think these thugs would have hearts of stone. But when certain key players do their 180 degree moral turnaround it just feels unnatural. I’ll give the film the benefit of the doubt, as we get dropped right into the thick of the action with no explanation as to how or why these men chose the paths that they did causing them to fall from grace, but it just rubs me the wrong way.
Add that onto a muddied third act that seems a bit rushed and you’ve got a film that went from really good to just good.
Even though it’s not likely to get mentioned in the same breath as films like Training Day or Rampart, Triple 9 is a decent popcorn action flick that manages to wrangle an A-list cast to elevate what ends up being a C-level story with good performances (albeit with some questionable motivations for some) and decent action.