Triple 9 is a film bursting with potential. From a DEEP cast with Oscar winning (and nominated) and premiere television pedigree; the lens of John (The Proposition) Hillcoat; but it’s story is so overstuffed that it tears at the seams.
Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his crew (Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus) enlist the help of two crooked cops (Anthony Mackie, Clifton Collins Jr.) to perform a heist on an Atlanta Bank to retrieve a safe deposit box for their employer (Michael’s sister in law) Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet). When they deliver the goods instead of receiving payment they get an assignment for an even crazier heist that means killing a cop “Code: 999” to create a diversion. Marcus’ (Mackie) new partner Chris Allen (Casey Affleck) looks like the perfect scapegoat. Meanwhile Chris’ Uncle Detective Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson) is on the crew’s tail after the first heist.
Writer Matt Cook’s ambitious international crime epic tries to have it both ways. It tries to be sprawling, introduce a plethora of characters and to give each of them some kind of moment to fulfil their function. All this while balancing the nepotism of interrelated characters in this hornet’s nest. It doesn’t work. When you look at the exemplary films in the crime genre there’s simply no question; Heat shines. There’s that perfect balance between co-leads and their crews; and the momentum toward the goal of the film; the final heist. Triple 9 has ensemble fatigue and it’s completely indecisive about where to focus and at times, despite the precision of direction and execution, you get lost wondering who is on a collision course for whom. The premise really deserved 4 to 6 episodes on HBO or FX (with all the same players) and it would have had the space to succeed.
Director John Hillcoat’s aesthetic has a vibrant, sweaty colour palette that makes the players and town pop. Hillcoat takes you into the ghettos, and the story is textured with urban decay. The signature action sequence of the film of a swat team entering the tenements to collect a suspect turns into an electrifying tactical extraction and methodical clearance exercise.
The cast is eclectic and diverse and there are a bunch of top performers that don’t get enough time to simmer. They’re caught in-between perfectly unwritten mystery, conveying minor details and fully fleshed out, meaty characters. Woody Harrelson’s Jeffrey Allen is ‘Bad Lieutenant with a heart of gold,’ swanning about, taste testing drugs, talking to Michael Kenneth Williams’ drag queen informant Sweet Pea as sign posts to hunting down Atwood’s crew.
Winslet has presence, style, and a decent Russian accent playing Irina. She wears the crown of her crime organisation while her husband is imprisoned and her presence neuters Ejiofor’s Michael Atwood. Ejiofor is solid in every film but in the wake of something like 12 Years a Slave, you wanted this to be the Neil McCauley (De Niro in Heat) of Triple 9, and he doesn’t quite get there. Clifton Collins Jr’s crooked detective Franco Rodriguez delivers the understated and most definitely underrated performance of the film.
Affleck doesn’t get enough back story; the scenes to tell us what we need to endear him to the audience. A half baked car conversation with Mackie’s Belmont and him sitting at his computer on ‘Marine Tube’ feel tremendously lazy. Norman Reedus is underused, Aaron Paul is in an inescapable inept sibling/partner casting Groundhog Day and Gal Gadot and Teresa Palmer must only have been hired for they look semi dressed walking away from their men.
Triple 9 is undercooked.
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman
Directed by: John Hillcoat
Written by: Matt Cook
Chiwetel Ejiofor … Michael Atwood
Anthony Mackie … Marcus Belmont
Clifton Collins Jr. … Franco Rodriguez
Aaron Paul … Gabe Welch
Norman Reedus … Russell Welch
Woody Harrelson … Jeffrey Allen
Casey Affleck … Chris Allen
Teresa Palmer … Michelle Allen
Kate Winslet … Irina Vlaslov
Gal Gadot … Elena Vlaslov
Michael Kenneth Williams … Sweet Pea