From its opening bank robbery, it’s clear that Triple 9 aims to be a crime epic in the style of masterpieces like Heat, The Godfather, and others: director John Hillcoat (The Proposition, The Road) shoots the heist expertly, cutting between the robbers inside and the getaway men outside, and then ramps up the tension as the job goes wrong: the cops get involved and the battle is taken to the streets, which in this case is the grittier section of Atlanta. It’s a bravura sequence that introduces many of our main players and offers the promise of more sweeping, violent melodrama to come.
Sadly, though, that promise never pans out as Triple 9’s ambitions slowly fizzle away in a script that gets more drawn out, overly complicated, and even ridiculous, leading to a third act that should hum with tension but instead wheezes with the sound of the script’s contrivances grating up against each other as they grind toward a perfunctory finish.
That bank robbery is perpetrated by professional criminals Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Russell (Norman Reedus) and his brother Gabe (Aaron Paul), along with Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Jorge (Clifton Collins, Jr.). The brothers have a background in military special ops while Marcus and Jorge turn out to be corrupt police officers playing both sides of the fence. Gabe, beset by drug and alcohol issues, is a former cop himself and the wild card of the bunch.
The team is working for a vicious Russian-Jewish mafia run by Irina (an unrecognizable Kate Winslet, chowing down on her ostentatious home decor), who insists on them doing one more job despite Michael’s misgivings. He doesn’t have much of a choice though since Irina is holding Michael’s son by her sister (Gal Gadot) hostage until the job – which requires breaking into the local Homeland Security stronghold – is done. The crew deduces that the only way to make the plan work is to stage a “999” – police code for a cop killing that will draw all the city’s police resources away from any other crime happening at the same time.
Marcus and Jorge think they have the perfect candidate for their “999” too: Marcus’ new partner Chris (Casey Affleck), who just got transferred from a cushier part of town. They figure he is just soft enough to get himself knocked off in the more dangerous environs that he’s now working. But there are two problems with that: Casey is tougher than they think, and he’s the nephew of senior detective Jeff Allen (Woody Harrelson), a sozzled yet still crafty veteran who is slowly putting the pieces together.
The biggest problem with Triple 9 is that none of these characters are given enough dimension to make their stories truly dramatic or tragic. Chris is practically a superhero, able to take down a nasty gang leader on his own, lead a squad of grizzled veteran cops and be a tender father and husband to his wife (Teresa Palmer who, along with Gadot, is completely wasted as the dutiful wifey) without breaking a sweat. He’s ostensibly the main character, but he never changes and the movie keeps switching back to either Michael, Marcus, or Jeff, of whom only one has something resembling a character arc, and it’s an abrupt one at that.
As a result, with no clear protagonist driving the story, the movie merely bounces from situation to situation without any of them sticking around long enough to gain any traction or resonance. Is the movie about the Homeland Security heist? Michael’s conflict with Irina over his son? Chris’ plunge into a squalid and corrupt side of police work? We never get to spend enough time with anyone or anything in Matt Cook’s increasingly overburdened and strained screenplay, which operates on the premise that a lot of these characters can’t see what’s staring them right in the face.
Even the geography of the story begins to fall apart: in one instance, one of the corrupt cops appears almost instantly at a crime scene after being involved in another one, yet that is followed by a ludicrously long car chase in which it takes a bunch of cops screaming through the streets at high speed what seems like half the afternoon to reach a crime in progress. And while Hillcoat knows his way around action scenes – remember the sturdy opening sequence? – he leans more frequently on quick editing later in the movie to create artificial excitement as things get more bogged down.
It’s a shame too, because he’s got one hell of a cast to work with. Affleck is okay but not forceful enough a presence to be the story’s main hero, especially since he’s all but playing a saint. Ejiofor, Mackie and Collins, all terrific actors, do what they can but are only able to carry the thing on their backs so far. Harrelson, of course, makes anything he’s in more watchable, but less effective is Paul, overdosing on ham as the wasted Gabe, and as we mentioned before, Winslet, who seems to be in another movie entirely.
And that’s the problem: Triple 9 is made up of pieces of other, potentially better movies, but it’s too wrapped up in pushing all its little pieces along to let anything stand and breathe on its own. The gold standard of modern crime epics (meaning anything in the last 20 years) is Heat, which features two powerful, damaged characters standing in opposition to each other and manipulating everyone else around them in a human chess match. Triple 9 lays out all the pieces, sets up the game, but has nothing approaching a coherent strategy. It’s more fail than epic.
Triple 9 is in theaters now.