John Hillcoat’s Triple 9 is one of those cops-versus-robbers thrillers that invites the application of adjectives like taut, or muscular. And it’s apt that those words are normally associated with the human body: this is the kind of film that requires its actors to act tough and look tough, so it’s jam-packed with stars who have clearly been working out at the gym—if you were to sniff the screen at any point you’d probably OD on testosterone. All the men here sweat profusely as they do their Man Things, such as loading weapons, robbing banks, shooting other people, grimacing, chasing other men with guns, driving really fast and telling each other to SHUT THE FUCK UP. Then, to remind you that deep down some of them are actually sensitive human beings, and that we should care about their fate, Hillcoat ensures that we see a couple of wives being kissed or the affectionate ruffling of a child’s mop top.
Sadly the film never quite manages to wriggle out from underneath a suffocating blanket of cops-versus-robbers-muscular-taut-thriller clichés. It’s partly about a group of bent cops and ex-military badasses who are performing artfully-planned robberies in Atlanta at the behest of Kate Winslet’s ruthless Russian Mafia boss. As soon as you meet the group you can guess what their fates will be: there’s the leader (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who doesn’t trust a couple of other members of the gang; his loyal right-hand man (Norman Reedus), whose status marks him out as dead meat from the off; the wild one whose mouth is going to get them into trouble (Aaron Paul); a conflicted detective (Anthony Mackie); and a very unconflicted, cold-hearted detective (Clifton Collins, Jr) who is bound to sell everyone down the Chattahoochee at some point. It’s also partly about an honest cop (Casey Affleck) who gets caught up in their plans to steal some kind of MacGuffin or other from a secure facility: the gang’s aim is to create a ‘Triple 9’ diversion in the city by killing Affleck’s cocky detective Chris Allen, thus drawing most of the city’s police force to the scene, and allowing the gang extra time to carry out their theft elsewhere.
As you can see the chief selling point of the film is the ensemble cast; in addition to those mentioned above Woody Harrelson has a fairly sizeable role as Allen’s coke-snorting, weed-smoking uncle, who also happens to be the baggy-suited Sgt. Detective trailing the bank robbers (you have to regularly ignore such unlikely coincidences during Triple 9). Gal Gadot – at the beginning of a month that will presumably change her life forever, regardless of earlier success and achievement – has a small role as Ejiofor’s girlfriend, who is also the mother of his child and the sister of Winslet’s icy Irina Vaslov. Michael K. Williams and Teresa Palmer also get a scene or two, with Williams’ transvestite informant accessorising with a small dog that has been dyed pink (poor thing). In fact the cast is pretty good, and although we’ve seen many of these characters and scenarios before – Heat and The Town spring to mind – these stars show enough committment to the shouting and grimacing and running and shooting to make Triple 9 work. In particular both Harrelson and Winslet are fun to watch, playing completely over-the-top characters that allow both actors to partake in welcome bouts of scenery-chewing. Of the two, Winslet wisely exercises a little more restraint, while Harrelson can’t help himself.
The action is also of a good standard. An early robbery and getaway attempt via the city’s busy freeway can’t quite match the tension of Heat‘s street shootout or Sicario‘s gripping traffic jam scene, but two later claustrophobic sequences set in housing projects more than make up for it, and allow Mackie and Affleck further opportunites to sweat and practice their grimaces. These are well-handled by the director and his cinematographer, who put you in the middle of proceedings by employing hand-held cameras and shooting in close proximity to the actors. It’s a little disorienting at times, as hand-held camera footage tends to be in action films, but I can’t deny that the overall effect works well. So, given there are edge-of-your-seat sequences and the performances are on the money it’s a shame that Triple 9 is let down by an unremarkable industrial score and an unimaginative screenplay. There’s a bulbous mass of familiar material: as good as the action sequences are, the build up to each one is disappointing, and there’s little original about the numerous scenes set in police stations, the pavement confrontations with Hispanic gangs or the criminals relaxing in strip clubs before their big job. What makes this doubly frustrating is the fact that Triple 9 almost succeeds. Almost. Hillcoat is on the right path, his actors are on board, and I felt sufficiently entertained by the end, but ultimately the film fails to wriggle completely free of the cop action movie pack.
Directed by: John Hillcoat.
Written by: Matt Cook.
Starring: Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Kate Winslet, Woody Harrelson, Clifton Collins, Jr, Norman Reedus, Teresa Palmer, Gal Gadot, Luis Da Silva, Michael K. Williams.
Cinematography: Nicolas Karakatsanis.
Editing: Dylan Tichenor.
Music: Atticus Ross, Bobby Krlic, Leopold Ross, Claudia Sarne.
Running Time: 115 minutes.