From the director of The Proposition, The Road and Lawless, Australian filmmaker John Hillcoat has turned to making a crime genre movie. Triple 9 boasts a fantastic cast but suffers from an overly convoluted screenplay.
In the city of Atlanta, Michael Belmont (Chiwetel Ejiofor) runs a crew of dirty cops who commit armed robberies for the Russian Mafia. After a job to steal a safe deposit box, the team think they are done working for the Russians, but are forced to do one last job after one of their members is killed and blackmailed by their boss, Irina (Kate Winslet). It is made even more personal for Michael because Irina practically holds his son hostage. Their mission is to rob a Homeland Security building which would require a big window to ensure they can do the job. They decide the best way to do it would be to commit a Triple 9, police code for a cop being killed, on the other side of town, and their target is a young detective who has joined the gang unit, Chris Allen (Casey Affleck).
On the surface Triple 9 has everything a film fan would want, it is made by an excellent director, based on a screenplay that was on the Black List and has a cast to die for – having the likes of Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Woody Harrelson and Norman Reedus. With talent like that you can expect a quality movie and Triple 9 does offer some fantastic moments. The majority of the cast give strong performances, particularly Ejiofor as the gang leader who basically has his balls in a vice; he had the most to work with – his character being given the most depth and he has the most to lose personally. The stakes for him are high.
Despite the quality of the cast, some actors are given little to work with. Mackie does well as Marcus, Chris’ partner who picks the young detective as a target for assassination but slowly befriends Chris as the movie progresses. There are great looks on Mackie’s face as he becomes more conflicted about his mission and his new found friendship. We do not get to see much of his personal life, but Mackie does the best he can with the material he is given. Clifton Collins Jr. as Jorge Rodriguez was given the short straw as the hot-headed Hispanic member of the crew who has no qualms about using violence. Michael K. Williams has a bizarre role as a transvestite pimp, and one of the big name actors leaves the movie very early which leads to some disappointment.
Triple 9 basically wanted to be a modern version of Heat, a crime epic that is as much about the cops and robbers personal lives as the preparation of the crime. But the characters were much richer and well-drawn in the Michael Mann classic, even the minor ones. Many of the characters in Triple 9 disappear for long periods and the movie has a very disjointed method of storytelling. Some of the plotlines are just pushed into the background, like Harrelson’s investigation into the opening robbery. The movie tries to put too much in 115 minute running time. It stretched itself too thin and it would not be a surprise to find out there is an extended cut for the Blu-ray release.
Hillcoat directs the action with panache. There is an excellent opening bank robbery that is akin to opening of Ben Affleck’s The Town and there is a good shootout in the projects where the camera follows the cops during a raid. The race to the cop shooting was truly intense to see if the cops are able to make it to the scene in time while Mike and the rest of his crew commit the heist. Hillcoat’s talent is evident, the crime scenes are filled with energy and tension and he gets the best from his actors. But Hillcoat is hampered by the screenplay and Triple 9 lacks the depth that his previous movies had.
Triple 9 could have been a great heist movie and crime; it had the director and the cast to achieve this. But the unfocused story and shallow characters drags it down, making it more a collection of well-crafted action scenes and wasted talent. It pains me to say this because I enjoyed Hillcoat’s previous movies.