7 out of 10
Casey Affleck as Chris Allen
Directed by John Hillcoat
Triple 9 Review:
There are two ways to approach a very well-used genre: either from entirely new, wholly original angle; or, to play to its known strengths with a focus on just producing the most entertaining variation possible. There’s a lot to be said about both instincts, but we tend to give the greatest benefit of the doubt to original version, viewing the ‘new perspective’ as a grace unto itself.
The downside of this is it causes us frequently to undervalue the latter for its familiarity and ignoring how difficult it is to do the familiar well. And there may be no genre more familiar than the crime film (except perhaps the romantic comedy), a staple since the Golden Age of film.
Though it turns over no new leaves, John Hillcoat’s Triple 9 is a well-cast, well-intentioned (if overambitious) entry to the field, examining the myriad cascading events stemming from a troop of highly-trained former soldiers committing a rash of daring robberies throughout Atlanta.
To quote Charlie Kaufman, “for more examples of this see every other crime movie ever made,” which certainly explains why the ‘new take’ method has the most cache value. Some of it is because of the apparent higher difficulty of originality, not least because by definition it becomes rarer with each new variation.
Soon, the ‘new take’ on the crime films will be about a pair of plumbers going about their everyday lives fixing drains. Not that there isn’t some brilliant future filmmaker out there who will one day manage exactly that, but such a specific focus – which tends to be very plot based – bypasses the pleasures that can come from simply focusing on well-rounded, sympathetic characters as opposed to plot-driven cyphers and setting them against one another.
It’s a recipe for drama baked into Triple 9 – the call sign for a downed police officer in the field – as the gang, desperate to complete one final score, augments its ranks with a cadre of dirty cops who know how the department works and can sweep all the dirt from their jobs under the rug.
And it’s a lot of dirt as they’ve gotten embroiled with the Russian mafia, who are demanding they raid a practically impenetrable Homeland Security depot… or else. Yes, as writer Matt Cook’s plot goes, it’s been done before, but Hillcoat makes the most out of it through impeccable casting and a (mostly) unshakeable eye for character development.
This has been the hallmark of much of Hillcoat’s work, sometimes to a fault (causing narrative drive to slow to a halt as it frequently did in Lawless), but he’s working with an embarrassment of riches in Triple 9 featuring sterling performances from Ejiofor, Mackie and Paul as the robbers slowly coming apart from the tension their choices have created for them.
The filmmakers understand at a basic level that the most palpable drama comes from taking characters the audience cares for individually and forcing them into corners opposite one another.
In this case, that comes from the decision to use a triple nine to divert police attention long enough to rob Homeland security, with Belmont’s (Mackie) unfortunate new partner Allen (Affleck) as the bait – a decision much easier to make before Belmont’s life is saved during a SWAT raid gone wrong.
If Triple 9 has a failing it’s actually overambition – it stuffs the screen with characters to the point where there isn’t time to develop all of them while simultaneously freezing narrative drive (a definite problem in a thriller). This leaves many of the major characters unconnected in a sprawling story, forcing individual storylines to freeze in place waiting for others to catch up.
It also abandons many characters as undeveloped stereotypes made more noticeable by the complicated individuals they exist alongside, particularly Harrelson, who is largely wasted in a generic jaded cop role. Ejiofor’s frustrated gang leader, despite being the most formidable presence in the film, only gets to deal with three of the other major players leaving him to spend much of his time repeating the same scene with a gloriously over-the-top Winslet as the ruthless Russian mob boss.
More problematic, it tries to have its cake and eat it, too. The filmmakers want to pit their most sympathetic characters against one another, but don’t want any of those characters doing anything which might feel unsatisfying.
The compromise solution is shortcut any real resolution in favor of artificial villains who have not been part of the major drama and thus have no weight to them as the gang members try to figure out if they can go through with their plan and whose side they’re really on. It’s an unfortunate end to a taut, well-made piece of crime of fiction, and a reminder that making the merely entertaining is as difficult, if not more so, than crafting the new and unusual.
Still, even if we can’t be transported for the entire running time, a movie which manages the feat even for just a few moments is rare to enjoy whatever its faults may be.