Action/thrillers about cops and robbers have been around for eighty years, but writer/director David Ayer successfully carved out a niche of his own over the past decade and a half with films that ramp up the intensity, immediacy, and authenticity on both sides of the law. Movies like Training Day, Dark Blue, Street Kings, and End of Watch drop viewers into the murky and restless grey area where both the good guys and bad guys move. Ayer’s last effort in this direction, Sabotage, is a ridiculous mess, and since then he’s moved further away with the WWII tank warfare film, Fury, and the upcoming comic adaptation, Suicide Squad.
“Who will take up his mantle during this sabbatical?”, ask fans of testosterone-fueled, graphically violent, morally scattershot action films about law and disorder. (Okay, fine, it’s just me asking…) Turns out John Hillcoat is your huckleberry, apparently.
Triple 9 opens with a bank robbery as five men execute their plan with precision. Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Russell (Norman Reedus) are ex-military contractors, Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Franco (Clifton Collins Jr.) are active detectives, and Russell’s younger brother, Gabe (Aaron Paul), himself an ex-cop, is also along for the ride. The quintet is working for a Russian mobster, but while he sits in jail they’re taking orders from his wife, Irina (Kate Winslet). Further complicating that relationship is Michael’s history and child with Irina’s younger sister, Elena (Gal Gadot), a woman whose posterior holds some kind of magnetic pull on the camera’s gaze.
The team is pressured into committing one more job involving an item currently being held in a Department of Homeland Security repository, but the time required to commit the robbery exceeds the response time of local law enforcement. What to do? Rather than add a security alarm expert to the team they decide the best course of action is to kill a cop – the radio code for which is 999 – knowing that every other cop in the city would rush towards that scene giving them more time for the crime. They settle on Chris (Casey Affleck), a new transfer to the unit with a wife (Teresa Palmer), a child, a no-bullshit attitude, and a cop uncle named Jeffrey (Woody Harrelson).
That’s the setup of writer Matt Cook’s script, and it should surprise no one that fate, luck, and the revelation that bad guys can’t be trusted all work together to ensure that nothing quite works out as planned. Triple 9’s big issue sits somewhere in this dense yet simultaneously incomplete story. The film feels too long – certainly longer than its nearly two-hour running time – but it also feels like elements, threads, and subplots have been left on either the page or the cutting-room floor.
There’s no depth to the teammates beyond stereotypical traits – we never learn why any/all of them are so comfortable killing cops, their connection with the mob is hazy, efforts to make some of them anti-heroes are slight – and while Chris is setup as the protagonist in theory he’s not given time to make his mark with viewers. No one really gets time to breathe leaving them all one-note characters with only the most basic motivations.
Script and pacing issues hurt, but Hillcoat, his cast, and cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis (Cub, The Drop) ensure there’s nary a dull moment to be found onscreen. Action scenes are choreographed with power and impact, and while the film enjoys the darkness at times its daytime set-pieces are stylish affairs. The opening is the first to introduce the film’s embrace of the color red – red dye, red lights, red blood – and the palette becomes a precursor to death.
The cast is committed and confident in their admittedly shallow characters, and while serious events are transpiring Winslet is clearly having some fun spouting wisdom and talking tough in her accent #43C. Michael K. Williams gives a brief but equally entertaining turn as a transvestite snitch. The others are locked into a more hardcore mode, but they deliver the required intensity.
Hillcoat’s films have long been about the violence men commit against other men, but from the highs of 2005’s The Proposition to his more recent Lawless that violence has previously remained set in the past. This is his first real foray into modern action, and he acquits himself handily with a film that captures the grit, style, and bloodshed of Ayer’s best. He also ensures the tactics seem authentic whether in gun fights or building-breaches, and scenes feel more suspenseful and a part of the real world as a result.
Triple 9 is both too much movie and not enough, and something needs to give in one direction or the other for it to work as anything but a visually appealing, occasionally tense experience.
The Upside: Visceral action scenes; fantastic cast
The Downside: Convoluted, overly busy plot; feels longer than it is even as it feels like large chunks are missing