Triple 9 is a heist thriller, but not quite as we know it. It’s strange. Febrile. As wild as a lift full of wolves.
Picture this: Kate Winslet is a Russian-Israeli gangster who’s holding Wonder Woman (okay, Gal Gadot) hostage so that an ex-soldier and explosives expert, Terrell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) will pull off a pair of heists, each more dangerous than the last. At one point, Woody Harrelson wears a werewolf mask. Michael K Williams… well, I don’t want to spoil his unexpected cameo.
This is the latest movie from John Hillcoat, the director of gritty Australian western The Proposition, poetically despairing Cormac McCarthy adaptation The Road, and moonshine-running period gangster yarn, Lawless. To begin with, Triple 9 might look of a piece with those movies: masculine, terse, mercilessly violent. But then you notice something else – the weirdness. A sense that Hillcoat’s leavened his hard-bitten style with a surreal, pulpy sense of humour.
Triple 9 unfolds with an excitingly-staged heist, a caper Terrell pulls off with a bunch of corrupt cops and lowlifes played by Norman Reedus, Aaron Paul, Anthony Mackie and Clifton Collins Jr. But then it ends abruptly in a cloud of red dye and a dreamlike yet equally thrilling sequence on a jammed-up freeway.
From here, the plot rapidly tangles up a cat’s cradle of plotting, corruption and intrigue. Woody Harrelson plays Sgt Allen, an ageing, cynical detective whose drink and drugs habit makes him Atlanta, Georgia’s own Bad Lieutenant; he’s the one who winds up sniffing around the mess left behind after Terrell’s assault on a downtown bank. Across town, his nephew Chris (Casey Affleck) has just started a new job at a local precinct, where he happens to be partnered up with Anthony Mackie’s cop, Marcus – who’s of course one of the members of Terrell’s crew.
When Terrell’s pressed into doing a second job by the glamorously evil Russian gangster Irina Vlaslov (Winslet), partner in crime Jorge (Clifton Collins Jr) has the horrendous idea of murdering a cop to divert attention away from their heist. As a result, Chris winds up at the top of their hit list.
Unfolding like a delirious compendium of Michael Mann thrillers (Thief, Heat, Miami Vice), Training Day and John Carpenter’s classic urban western Assault On Precinct 13, Triple 9 is a pure pulp thriller. But there’s a brilliance in its trashiness; Winslet, with her not-entirely-convincing Wussian accent, is the latest in a growing trend of deliciously evil female gangsters – see also Kristen Scott Thomas in Only God Forgives, Cameron Diaz in The Counselor and Salma Hayek in Savages. Is the 40-something female gangster the new wicked witch of cinema? Perhaps, but Winslet’s clearly having a ball here.
Best of all, the entire cast puts in absolutely top-notch work. Affleck’s coolly charismatic as a tough cop turned quarry. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Anthony Mackie make their morally murky characters worth rooting for; they may be crooks, but they’re likeable and their motivations are always clear. Woody Harrelson is as great value as always in the role of the archetypal “been there, seen it all” detective, and is arguably walks away with the entire movie. Of all the cast, Norman Reedus and Aaron Paul feel the most short-changed; Reedus in a relatively brief role with little to say about it, Paul saddled with a drug-addled screw-up character who’s worryingly close to the one that made his name in Breaking Bad.
Familiar though some of Triple 9’s plot points are, Hillcoat directs with a palpable rigour. This is far from genre hack-work – a set-piece where Affleck and a team of cops have to breach a building and apprehend a maniac with a machine gun is positively electrifying. We’re in mainstream genre territory here, but Hillcoat doesn’t let us off the hook by glamorising the violence; when a bullet hits home, the results are messy and horrible. Most of all, Triple 9 feels like the work of a filmmaker trying something less gruelling than The Proposition or The Road, but still packed with detail and great performances. Once again, Triple 9 proves that Hillcoat’s one of the most interesting directors currently working.
Triple 9 is out in UK cinemas on the 19th February.