Triple 9, the latest film from Director John Hillcoat, has a stellar cast and a cool premise. The only problem is, you might feel like you’ve seen this one before.
In Atlanta, GA, a topnotch crew robs a bank, stealing a safe deposit box. One of the criminals decides to take some money too. The money is loaded with anti-theft measures, which ruins the crew’s escape and leads to a shootout on the highway, drawing more attention to them. Once they manage to escape, the audience finds out who the crew is: former military and law enforcement and two crooked cops. Their leader is Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a former military man with ties to the Russian mafia. His son is the nephew of the crime boss, Irina Vlaslov (a near-unrecognizable Kate Winslet). The boy’s mother is Irina’s party girl sister, Elena (Gal Gadot). Irina uses Michael’s son as leverage to get him to pull jobs for her so she can finally free her husband from prison. Michael’s best friend, Russell Welch (Norman Reedus), is also former military and plans out the jobs with Michael. Russell’s little brother, Gabe (Aaron Paul), is a former cop who crashed and burned out of the department after a promising start to his career. Now Gabe is a drug addict and liability on these jobs. The other two members are dirty cops, Franco Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie). Marcus returns back to his precinct to find that he has a new partner, Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), a by-the-book detective who is the nephew of a Jeff Allen (Woody Harrelson), a detective in robbery-homicide, who is on the trail of the crew. After the completion of the bank job, Irina holds the crew’s payment as collateral to get them to pull one more job—robbing a government facility. The crew knows what police response time is and how long it will take them to complete the job—the numbers don’t add up. The only answer they see is to force the police to execute a Triple 9 alert, which will bring every cop in the city to the location of the Triple 9 (officer down). Marcus has the perfect cop to be the subject to serve as the bait: his new partner Chris.
As you can see, that’s a lot of information and characters to digest in a two-hour film, and that’s one of the major problems with Triple 9. There really is no central protagonist, which hurts the focus of the narrative. You could say that Chris is the main character, but he’s ignorant of much of what’s going on until he becomes directly involved towards the end of the film. Maybe Michael is the main character? Well, he has the most fleshed out background of all the characters, but he’s still not a nice guy himself, so I wouldn’t exactly call him a protagonist. Perhaps Jeff, the detective investigating the crew is the main guy? No, much of his investigation takes place off-screen and we learn the details later, so he’s far from the main character. So, with no real clear main character, it’s tough to immerse yourself in this film. The screenplay by Matt Cook is too complicated for a film, but it also cuts corners in the storytelling in order to fit the story into a two-hour time limit. The film that Triple 9 borrows the most from is Michael Mann’s spectacular Heat (one of my Top 10 of all-time), which told a complex story, but didn’t get hemmed up with too many characters. Also, Heat is almost an hour longer than Triple 9, which helps in letting a story breathe. There are few plot holes in Triple 9 that make zero sense and are there just for convenience to keep the story moving. Cook’s script was one of those on the famed Black List and once again, I’m left shaking my head and wondering why. If you’re going to riff on Heat, there’s a better way to do it. That being said, there is a lot of great action and tension in this film, which kept me engaged throughout, despite the cut corners and plot holes. But essentially, it’s a dumbed-down Heat.
The cast is absolutely fantastic here, but they do their best with the material they’re given. Harrelson is a cross between himself and his character on True Detective, but nowhere near as complex as Marty Hart. Ejiofor is great as always and Reedus and Paul also give good performances. Collins Jr. is chilling as the heartless Rodriguez, while Mackie does well as the conflicted Marcus. Winslet is all cool detachment as Irina and Gadot is good in the few scenes she’s in. Casey Affleck does all right with what he’s given, but the problem here is that for much of the film, the story happens around his character and there’s not much for him to react to. Affleck does better with really meaty parts and Chris Allen is not one of them.
While Triple 9 definitely has its issues, I can’t deny that overall I enjoyed it. I was engaged throughout even if some of the plot points come out of left field or leave you thinking that a scene got cut out. It’s not nearly on the level with something like Michael Mann’s Heat or Chris Nolan‘s The Dark Knight, but it’s a decent crime-thriller with a stellar cast. It just doesn’t reach those epic heights that it could have.