Review: Triple 9
PLOT: A group of thieves beholden to the Russian mob must figure out a way to execute their most complicated heist yet. In order to do so, they come up with a plan that involves killing a cop... and since some of them are cops, the stakes are even higher.
REVIEW: TRIPLE 9 is a lean, mean cops-n-robbers flick; filled with adrenaline and testosterone, crashing cars and bullet holes, it comes from Australian director John Hillcoat, who specializes in tales about rough men with guns (THE PROPOSITION, LAWLESS). It satisfies very immediate urges: Bad guys and badder guys trying to outthink each other while ducking gunfire and racing through gloomy urban streets; surely a movie Michael Mann would smile at. But what it lacks is heart; for all its intensity, it it doesn't have blood in its veins. But thanks to Hillcoat's skill at creating an atmosphere of ferocity, as well as an outstanding cast of A-level talent, what might have been a very forgettable exercise remains engaging throughout.
The movie opens with a rush of adrenaline: We briefly meet a team of professional crooks before they violently, handily rob a bank for a very specific item in the safe. Their getaway is filled with gunshots, smashed cars and explosions, but they get the job done. As they burn their escape car and disband for a few days, we realize two of them - Anthony Mackie's Marcus and Clifton Collins Jr.'s Rodriguez - are detectives. We'll ultimately learn the leaders of the crew - Chiwetel Ejiofer's Atwood and Norman Reedus' Russel - are ex-Special Forces soldiers, while the runt of the group - Aaron Paul's Gabe - is also a bit more than he appears to be. They're working at the behest of a cool-as-ice Russian mobster Irina (Kate Winslet), who is running the show while her husband sits in a Russian prison. Irina also happens to be the sister of Atwood's baby mama (Gal Gadot), which explains how he and his crew got mixed up in this deadly business to begin with. Satisfied but not fulfilled, Irina needs Atwood to pull off one last job, an especially dangerous one at the department of Homeland Security in Atlanta. For that to work, these crooks will have to create a severe distraction for the city's police force while they go about business.
Their plan includes a nine-nine-nine, which is police lingo for an officer down. A shot cop brings the rest of the unit rushing in that direction, so Atwood's crew figures if they can get a cop brought down elsewhere, they'll have an extra 5-6 minutes to work with. Not long after the scheme is hatched does Marcus get paired up with Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), newly transferred from a softer division and eager to prove himself in tougher streets. Chris, it is immediately clear, is one of those textbook virtuous cops, unshakable and there to "do good." He's a perfect target for his corrupt partner and his cohorts, but naturally nothing ever goes to plan in a movie like this, and before the heist is through there will be double-crosses, unexpected deaths, and general chaos in Atlanta.
Matt Cook's screenplay is completely predictable, for the most part, and unfortunately doesn't plumb the moral indications of its main storyline. The thieves who devise the "Triple 9" aren't bothered by the idea of shooting a boy in blue, which is fine for the movie's purposes but never makes them interesting characters, just pawns of the plot. The script is also filled with conveniences and coincidences that, again, work in the moment but fall apart as soon as you contemplate them for more than a minute. TRIPLE 9 is one of those movies you walk away from thinking, "But how come..?" and "Wait a minute, why did..?", etc. Airtight, it is not.
While the film does indeed bring to mind Michael Mann, it's also a movie Mann would probably never make. Unlike Mann, Hillcoat and Cook don't romanticize their bad guys; that's good for keeping the film in a perpetual place of gritty realism, but not good when you realize you don't give a damn about these dudes. You don't have to "like" characters in movies for them to be watchable and entertaining, but you should have a rooting interest in their exploits, and in the case of TRIPLE 9's many villains I never cared if they lived or died. Affleck's Chris is, of course, the sole upright character of the picture, but he's just an archetypal good cop in a sea of corruption; we barely know anything about him other than he's married with a kid (who we spend maybe two minutes with, tops). Even the other quote-unquote good detective in the flick is a boozy, drug snorting sonofabitch, who happens to be Chris' uncle Jeffrey; he's played by Woody Harrelson, who can't play a cop unless he's a bastard of a cop.
So why do I give this a positive review among all my gripes? First and foremost, the cast is so superb that they significantly elevate what is very much B-movie material. It'd be foolish to go through them one by one, they're all as solid as you'd expect them to be. (Ejiofer and Affleck are the real standouts, but can you resist Kate Winslet in form-fitting designer dresses utilizing a shaky Russian accent and dominating every man around her? No, you can't.) Secondly, Hillcoat can direct a frenetic action scene incredibly well. It's not all shaky cameras and choppy editing; he makes you feel like you're in the midst of genuine anarchy, and every bullet hit is loud and lethal. He also effectively creates a foreboding urban ambience, every sequence teeming with apprehension and disquiet. The movie's angry, sullen mood is an attribute. At the end of the day, Cook should be grateful that his rather rote story has been given such an upgrade courtesy of this cast and director; they've made TRIPLE 9 much more agreeable than it would have been.
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