John Hillcoat’s heist flick brings an embarrassment of acting riches to bear on a laughably disjointed script that can’t decide whether to go for self-seriousness or self-parody.
Triple 9Cast: Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Winslet, Anthony Mackie, Woody Harrelson, Clifton Collins Jr., Aaron Paul, Gal Gadot, Teresa Palmer, Norman Reedus, Michael Kenneth Williams
Studio: Open Road Films
Gruesomely violent and often idiotic, Triple 9 demonstrates the latest stage of decline for once promising director John Hillcoat. His previous films display a potent gothic sensibility: The Proposition and The Road, both explore the dark limits of human behavior, but even in showing extreme violence, they never acknowledge the complexities of loss. The focus of 2012's Lawless is less clear, as a rote bootleggers’ story is enlivened only by the contrast between Guy Pearce’s flamboyant campiness and Tom Hardy’s rock-like stoicism.
With Triple 9, it’s hard to spy even a glimmer of Hillcoat's earlier inclination. Just about any director could have shot this film.
A heist story that wrenches itself into a protracted epic about honor among thieves, Matt Cook's script for Triple 9 starts off with a bank holdup by a gang who operate more like a special-ops squad than run-of-the-mill criminals. As in any story of this kind, the first job introduces the team’s balance of types, from the brotherly leaders, Russell (Norman Reedus) and Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who read as the decent ones reluctant to kill anybody unnecessarily, to the more tightly wound Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr.). We're also familiar with the sweaty drug addict Gabe (Aaron Paul), guaranteed to screw things up for everybody, and the apparently thoughtful Marcus (Anthony Mackie), bound to become the dramatic linchpin of what’s to follow.
Following this initial job, Rodriguez and Marcus head off to work, which just so happens to be the Atlanta Police Department. This plot point will strain to power the remainder of the film. Once Michael delivers the goods to Irina (Kate Winslet), the Russian mob queen who hired them, he’s informed that the gang won’t get paid until they do another job.
This time, they’ve got to hit a Department of Homeland Security black site and retrieve some techno whatsit that will spring Irina’s husband from the gulag. Irina, whose heavies like to rip out people’s teeth and keep them in a baggie, has all kinds of extortionate means at her disposal to convince Michael to comply. Thus, even though he and his team quickly determine that it’s a suicide mission, and the only way they can pull it off is to divert the city’s police with a 9-9-9: Killing a cop. In a fantastic bit of luck, Marcus has just been saddled with a new partner, Chris (Casey Affleck), whom he despises and can’t wait to take out.
This set-up might have led to a tight knot of double-crosses and intricate conflicts, overlaid with an ominous noirish sheen. Instead, Triple 9 delivers yawning story inconsistencies, uniformly simplistic dialogue, far too little plot spread over nearly two interminable hours, a surplus of headline-grabbing allusions (everything from Blackwater to cartel death squads), and a vision of Atlanta as some of kind of Fincherian urban hell. It’s both too little and way, way too much, like a David Ayer script with all the self-conscious grit but none of the male bonding.
Amid this cacophony of images and ideas, the film tries to find room for Chris’ uncle Jeffrey (Woody Harrelson). He whipsaws between being a lowdown dope-smoking burnout of a cop given to inventing phrases like “InstaGoogleTweetFace” (and so reminding you of every other cop Harrelson has ever played) and a true believer obsessing over getting the bad guys and keeping his nephew safe. Jeffrey’s mistimed comic relief only serves to highlight the tediously grim assassination plot that's creaking along around him.
Triple 9 would be laughable if it weren't so lamentable. Watching so many skilled performers so unable to inject the film with drama or a sense of danger is, at last, just depressing.