Directed by: John Hillcoat.
Written by: Matt Cook.
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Michael Atwood), Casey Affleck (Chris Allen), Anthony Mackie (Marcus Belmont), Woody Harrelson (Jeffrey Allen), Aaron Paul (Gabe Welch), Kate Winslet (Irina Vlaslov), Gal Gadot (Elena Vlaslov), Norman Reedus (Russell Welch), Teresa Palmer (Michelle Allen), Michael Kenneth Williams (Sweet Pea), Clifton Collins Jr. (Franco Rodriguez), Michelle Ang (Trina Ling), Terence Rosemore (Joshua Parks), Terri Abney (Leah Green), Alexander Babara (Ben Feldman), Anthony Belevtsov (Yussel Gotlib), Luis Da Silva Jr. (Luis Pinto).
John Hillcoat is a director who makes dark, grimy, violent films where even the good guys are morally compromised. His “heroes” may not exactly be good men – but in the world of Hillcoat’s films, there are no more good men left – and the heroes are really only good by comparison to the truly vile people that surround them. Active since the 1980s, I don’t know any of his films before 2005’s The Proposition – which remains my favorite of his work, and is one of the best Westerns of the 2000s. Since then, there has been a law of diminishing returns at play with his films – 2008’s The Road, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel, was excellent – but not quite as good as The Proposition. 2012’s Lawless, but was certainly flawed, not least of which because he has no idea what to do with his female characters – who when they’re played by actresses as great as Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain, is a real disappointment. Now comes Triple 9, his first contemporary film – a cops and robbers thriller that calls to mind the likes of Michael Mann, Sidney Lumet and William Friedkin – but in ways that do Triple 9 no favors. Those directors each made several great films in the same vein as Triple 9 – and you’d well advised to spend the evening watching one of those instead. Triple 9 isn’t a bad per se – it’s just that it’s an echo of much better films.
The film begins with a bang – as a five man crew take down a bank with expert efficiency, until one of them makes a rash call that almost blows the whole thing. They aren’t there for the money – they’re there for a specific safety deposit box, but Gabe (Aaron Paul) grabs a bunch of cash anyway – unaware of the dye pack, that will explode, and almost destroy their getaway. The leader of this group is Mike (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and he isn’t very happy about this – but he’s close with Gabe’s older brother, Russell (Norman Reedus) – another member of the gang. The other two members are dirty cops – Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Franco (Clifton Collins Jr.) – who are even more pissed. From this robbery, the plot branches out in a few ways. Mike was doing to the job for Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet) – a Russian crime boss, who refuses to pay Mike and the team until he does yet another job for her. He cannot refuse because he has a son with Irina’s sister, Elena (Gal Gadot) – and Irina controls her and her son. Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson) is the cop in charge of the investigation – he may be a good cop, but he’s also using a lot of drugs himself. Then there is his nephew Chris (Casey Affleck), who has just transferred into a new squad – where he’s partnered up with Marcus. This second job that Irina wants Mike and his crew to do is more complicated – and requires more time. The title refers to the code given when a cop is shot on duty – and Mike and his crew think that if a triple 9 call goes out, it will give them the time they need to pull off the job. And since Marcus doesn’t even know Chris, let alone like him …
This truly is one of the most talented ensemble casts you could possibly ask for. There is hardly a cast member here who isn’t capable of great work. The disappointing thing then is that, for the most part, the film doesn’t give them all that much to do. Kate Winslet at least gets to don a spectacularly over-the-top Russian accent, and seems to be having a blast doing so (and I had a blast watching her) – the rest don’t even get that. Casey Affleck is stuck in the film’s most thankless role – the one, undeniably good character – who is pretty much just hopelessly naïve, as he doesn’t have a clue what the hell is going on. Everyone else in the movie is dour and sour and morose – with the exception of Mackie and Collins, Mackie because he’s so naturally charming, and Collins, because he relishes his evil role – he’s so evil, that I don’t think for a second anyone would allow him to be a cop, but I digress. Like in Lawless, Hillcoat wastes the presence of some talented actresses – this time Gal Gadot and Teresa Palmer (the later as Affleck’s wife, whose role is to be The Wife Who Worries About Her Husband).
Hill coat has often favored dark compositions before – they go along with his themes – but his work in Triple 9 is dark even by his standards. These characters seem to hardly do anything in the daytime – and even when they do, it’s in dark tunnels or abandoned buildings with no power, so Hillcoat can make the most of the shadows. The film works best during the action sequences – when these characters, who aren’t saying much of interest anyway, and who we do not really care about – are involved in life and death struggles, in which there is ultimately no escape for anyone. It would be generous to compare the last act to something like The Big Sleep – where one character kills another, just to be killed by another a scene later, and so on, but that well could have been the inspiration.
Triple 9 is not a bad movie – not really. It’s a movie that holds your attention, and once I realized it wasn’t going to be great, and simply sat back and enjoyed its limited pleasures, it worked pretty good. However, a decade ago, I kind of expected Hillcoat to go onto become a great director – The Proposition is a legitimately great film after all. But with each passing film, that seems less and less likely. As a director, he certainly has a point of view – but it’s dark, cynical and repetitive one.