Triple 9 has elements of greatness, but its talented cast and inspired directorial flourishes are offset by messy storytelling choices.
Triple 9 revolves around a team of criminals - one that includes ex-special military forces operatives/brothers Russel (Norman Reedus) and Gabe Welch (Aaron Paul) as well as local police officers Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie) and Jorge Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr.) - based in Atlanta, Georgia, where they carry out jobs for the ruthless matriarch of a powerful Russian mob organization, Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet). However, just when it seems that their business is finished, Irina holds back the team's payment and blackmails their leader Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who has a young son with Irina's sister Elena (Gal Gadot), into carrying out "one last job": an extremely difficult heist that involves a Homeland Security facility, to secure an item that will bring Irina one step closer to getting her husband out of prison.
Michael and his team thus come up with a grim, but effective, plan to ensure they have enough time to pull off the job: kill a police officer and go to work while the cops are preoccupied with the "999" (which is the police code for "officer down"). The team decides to target Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), Belmont's new partner and a naive cop who only-half listens to the warnings from his uncle, Sgt. Detective Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson), about the ugly realities of their profession. Complications soon arise, as the individual members of Michael's team wrestle with their doubts about the terrible act they're about to commit - while Jeffrey puts the pieces of this puzzle together and slowly begins to realize that his nephew is in grave danger.
Director John Hillcoat is known for making extra-gritty drama/thrillers that span different genres, be they western (The Proposition), post-apocalyptic survival (The Road), or historical crime (Lawless). His latest film, Triple 9, is likewise a hard-boiled tale of cops and crooks that benefits from his steady directorial hand and experience in handling this type of pulpy narrative material and shaping it into a thoughtful as well as contemplative work of cinema. There are a number of interesting story and thematic elements in rotation here too, but unfortunately Triple 9 fails to create a cohesive whole out of its individual plot threads and character storylines. The final result is a grisly crime drama/thriller that aims high, but ultimately lands in the middle of the road when it comes to the standard for this type of (conventional) genre fare.
Triple 9 is the feature-length screenwriting debut for Matt Cook and it feels like the work of an (overly) ambitious first-timer too, in terms of script choices. The film's narrative aims to be a Shakespearean-style tragedy about the thin line between cops and crooks and how difficult it is for people on both sides of the law to escape from being entrenched in a corrupt (and broken) system - giving rise to a messy narrative on the whole, where too many characters are under-developed and the movie struggles to fully explore many of the ideas it broaches. Triple 9's various character arcs and plot twists/turns are likewise derived from better - and more focused - cop/criminal dramas past (Training Day and The Departed are two examples that come to mind); for related reasons, many moments in the film that are intended to play out as shocking developments are too heavily telegraphed ahead of time.
Hillcoat's direction helps to elevate Triple 9 above its narrative shortcomings, in particular during the film's handful of action sequences. Triple 9 also boasts an effectively unpolished visual style, thanks to the cinematography by Nicolas Karakatsanis (The Drop) and its use of tight-knit camera shots and unflattering lighting to make the film's proceedings, settings, and characters alike feel more raw and authentic. This filmmaking approach allows Triple 9 to hit the ground running with its opening sequence (following a brief prologue), as well as during a key sequence in the second act that involves a dangerous apartment raid operation. Unfortunately, the film loses momentum as it heads into its third act, when the film's climax (and the events both immediately before and after) fails to heighten the tension and up the ante from what has came before - instead, going out on a bloody, but underwhelming, note with a dash to the finish line.
Much of Triple 9 also takes place either at night or in dark and shadowy interiors (empty parking lots, getaway vans, bars/strip clubs), further complimenting the neo-Noir themes of the movie with a fittingly grimy atmosphere and darker color palette. Downside is, Triple 9 also draws heavily on neo-Noir visual tropes and cliches, to the point that the film boarders on being a parody of the genre with its relentless "grittiness" and gloominess (see, for example, Triple 9's not-so-subtle use of thunderstorms to further set the mood). On the other hand, the film's pulsating score - co-composed by Oscar-winner Atticus Ross (The Social Network, Gone Girl) with relative newcomer Bobby Krlic, as well as Leopold Ross and Claudia Sarne (The Book of Eli) - is more inventive and infuses the proceedings with a crackling energy that they might not have possessed otherwise. Basically, Triple 9's stylistic choices are a mixed bag on the whole.
The ensemble cast for Triple 9 is one of its most impressive aspects, though the film doesn't always make great use of the talent it has. Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is the closest to being the real protagonist of Triple 9, delivers yet another solid and nuanced performance here (one ripe with bottled rage too), while Kate Winslet is likewise solid - though her turn as a Russian mobster is as over the top as Winslet's hairdo and outfits in the film. On the other hand, both Aaron Paul and Woody Harrelson feel typecast in their roles (an emotionally-unstable junkie and a cynical sgt. detective with a wry sense of humor), as do Anthony Mackie and Clifton Collins Jr. as two corrupt cops (one more charismatic, the other all but emotionally dead) and Casey Affleck as a naively noble police officer. There's simply not enough room in Triple 9 for these characters to evolve beyond archetypes, despite the capable actors charged with bringing them to life - though to be fair, the cast make their roles work better than they would have otherwise (as does Norman Reedus and Michael Kenneth Williams in smaller roles). As for Gal Gadot and Teresa Palmer (who plays Affleck's wife): they don't get much to do in Triple 9 other than be presented as eye candy, unfortunately.
Triple 9 has elements of greatness, but its talented cast and inspired directorial flourishes are offset by messy storytelling choices. The final movie result is a cops and crooks drama/thriller that doesn't shy away from heaping on the grit and brutality, yet fails to meet the bar or surpass past movies of a similar ilk - much less, break new ground for the genre - and fails to leave a strong impression, on the whole. Triple 9 does deliver in limited doses though, as there are certain sequences and scenes in the film that stand out above the serviceable, but under-whelming, plot/character and aesthetic cliches that are on display here. For those reasons, viewers who like a good David Ayer-esque crime thriller should find enough to appreciate about Triple 9 to justify giving it a look at some point... just not necessarily in theaters.
Triple 9 is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 115 minutes long and is Rated R for strong violence and language throughout, drug use and some nudity.
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