A film review by Craig J. Koban March 9, 2016

TRIPLE 9 jjj
 

2016, R, 115 mins.

 

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Michael Atwood  /  Anthony Mackie as Marcus Belmont  /  Kate Winslet as Irina Vlaslov  /  Casey Affleck as Chris Allen  /  Woody Harrelson as Sergeant Detective Jeffrey Allen  /  Clifton Collins Jr. as Jorge Rodriguez  /  Aaron Paul as Gabe Welch  /  Gal Gadot as Elena  /  Teresa Palmer as Michelle Allen  /  Norman Reedus as Russel Welch  /  Michael Kenneth Williams as Sweet Pea

Directed by John Hillcoat  /  Written by Matt Cook

John Hillcoat’s TRIPLE 9 is a new crooked cops ‘n robbers heist thriller that initially gets bogged down in some convoluted and murky storytelling, but once the film achieves momentum and lift off and builds towards a rather sensationally intense climax it became easy to forgot its somewhat troublesome scripting flaws.  

The Australian-born director has certainly made a stellar career of helming films that deal with flawed and damaged characters and overall moral decay (THE PROPOSITION remains one of the most underrated westerns of the last decade and his follow-up to that in THE ROAD is still one of the most haunting post-apocalyptic survival films that I’ve seen).  TRIPLE 9 continues that thematic undercurrent in delivering a solidly crafted and thoroughly exhilarating genre effort that definitely has aesthetic echoes of similar past films like Michael Mann’s HEAT, albeit with less than masterful results.  As a gritty exploration into the duplicitous world of law enforcement and the Russian mob, TRIPLE 9 crackles with reasonable pulse-pounding urgency throughout. 

Even though the film’s plot, as mentioned, comes out of the gate in a strangely confusing and unfocused manner, Hillcoat does provide audiences with a remarkably choreographed and staged opening sequence that at least gets the proverbial ball rolling.  In a bravura and frenetic 10-minute action scene, we witness a violent robbery of a downtown Atlanta bank that eventually spills out into the streets in a high-speed chase and shoot-out on the freeway.  TRIPLE 9 mixes things up considerably, though, when it reveals very early on that – in the aftermath of the robbery and the criminals’ escape – that some of the perpetrators are…cops.  Two of them are officers, including detectives Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie) and Jorge Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr.) and their other partners include ex-military men Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofer) and Russell Welch (Norman Reedus).  Welch’s younger brother Gabe (a perpetually sweaty and spaced-out Aaron Paul) is also on the squad, a former cop that fell from grace.  

 

 

The bank robbery crew appears to have some justifiable reasons for their crime spree.  A vile and ruthless Russian mobster, Irina Vlaslov (the unrecognizable and atypically cast Kate Winslet), has a stranglehold over Michael, seeing as he has a son with her sister Elena (Gal Gadot) and that Irina frequently uses the son as bait to convince Michael to perpetrate robberies for her.  When their last robbery fails to net Irina the fat payday that she was expecting (in order to free her own imprisoned husband), she immediately goes on the offensive and refuses to pay Michael and his crew in full…that is unless they do another heist job, and a much riskier one at that.  This mission requires the shooting of a cop, which would elicit a “999” call out to all police forces to apprehend the suspect, thereby leaving Michael and the rest of his crew relatively free from the law to complete their mission.  Michael reluctantly agrees to one last mission, but his crew is endangered when Belmont’s new partner Chris (Casey Affleck) joins the force and begins sniffing around in the city’s underworld.  Chris' uncle Sgt. Detective Jeff Allen (a wonderfully weird Woody Harrelson) begins investigating the gang’s comings and goings, leaving Belmont worried that his secret criminal activity will be uncovered. 

The star power wattage on display in TRIPLE 9 – especially for a relatively small budgeted and low marquee theatrical release – is remarkable.  I simply lost track of how many Oscar winning and nominated performers are in the cast alone.  Even though films like this are primarily driven by the force of their thrilling action sequences and tense standoffs, you still need empowered actors to populate these moments and give these genre films added dimension and complexity.  Casey Affleck has always been an interesting actor to me, seeing as he usually brings an unpredictable edge to just about every character he plays, which is no exception here playing his somewhat greenhorn, but determined and sharp-witted cop.  The manner he inhabits key sequences in TRIPLE 9 with an understated charisma gives the film added verisimilitude.  Ejiofer is also at the top of his game as the fiery and intense heist team quarterback that’s in over his head, and I really admired the bold casting choice of Winslet, who seems to be having a field day in one of her very few stern faced and chillingly merciless villain roles.  Harrelson is an intoxicating powder keg of strangeness as his pot smoking, alcohol guzzling, and hygienically unsound cop that has far sharper deductive instincts than his otherwise slobby façade lets on. 

Of course, TRIPLE 9 also greatly benefits from having Hillcoat as the assured ringmaster of all the mayhem and violence that erupts in this chaotic and seedy world.  I felt like I needed to immediately rush home and shower after seeing this film, which is oddly an esteemed compliment.  TRIPLE 9 is a dark, grime-invested, and frankly revolting looking film at times, but this overall style is purposely evoked by Hillcoat to typify and tap into the characters’ hearts of darkness and their deeply unethical extremes.  Hillcoat is as adept of a cinematic craftsman as any for making films that capture the intimately barbaric viciousness of their respective worlds, and the manner that he gives the mean streets of Georgia significant grit and a morose sense of unsettling atmosphere is perhaps TRIPLE 9’s most superlative achievement.  He even manages to imbue the story with a suffocating sense of nail-biting tension in character standoffs where hardly any dialogue is even spoken.  The film’s stark and oppressive sense of ambience often says more than anything than people of either side of the law could possibly say to each other during life-and-death moments of intrigue. 

As far as enthralling potboilers about treacherous characters go, TRIPLE 9 is methodically unrelenting and is rarely dull.  Where the film makes some categorical missteps, though, is on a screenplay level.  Far too frequently, Matt Cook’s script feels like its both subverting and adhering to a multitude of cop and gangster movie clichés, not to mention that some plot development beats frequently ring falsely (like a key moment late in the film when one character is able to exact some comeuppance utilizing a hidden explosive device that requires convenient movie logic for its placement and not reality based logic).  And even though the film’s undeniably gripping final act had me hooked with its overpowering sense of unease and character loyalty shifts, it unexpectedly ends before many pre-existing subplots have been dealt with and giving some semblance of closure.  I’m all for ambiguous endings that make you ponder its meaning, but TRIPLE 9 feels like it contains an abrupt ending because it doesn’t really know where to go from there. 

Despite its creative hiccups, TRIPLE 9 is still stacked with consummately engaged and committed performances and is – for the most part – successfully pulled off by an equally practiced filmmaker in Hillcoat, who really knows his way around this material.  The film certainly doesn’t attain the high qualitative levels of its director’s past work, but it nevertheless is a far cry above the types of disposable genre entries that populate the multiplexes at this time of year.  TRIPLE 9 isn’t HEAT (that’s for sure) and it surely reverberates the tone of that film in obvious dosages, but it does so with a brashly self-assured edge.   

And don’t forget to shower after seeing it.  That’s a must.   

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