In many ways, crafting a movie is like planning the perfect heist. All of the players need to be talented and well-suited for their respective roles, the goal must be ambitious, and the execution needs to be carried out in a way to trip up those on its tail. At the outset, Triple 9 seems to have a few of those ducks in a row. Director John Hillcoat is something of a veteran of the “terrible people do even worse things to one another” genre after such films as The Road and Lawless, and he’s assembled a cast of enough talented actors to fill a small awards ceremony. Even so, these star studded gangster movies can really go either way, ranging from a stylish dose of violence and emotion, to a lifeless excuses to give a few bullets and blood squibs a work out. There’s certainly enough grungy Atlanta grit here to cook a steak on top of the Blu Ray cover, but that can only do so much.
Opening with an extended bank heist sequence, the film follows a group of criminals under the thumb of Russian mob boss Vrina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet). Career criminal and group leaded Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor) has a child with Vrina sister Elena (Gal Gadot), while back-up band members played by Aaron Paul and Norman Reedus eagerly await the massive payday that lies on the end of a follow up heist that Vlaslov requires of them. Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Franco (Clifton Collins Jr.), the gang’s resident crooked cops cook up a plan to draw police fire away from this second job, hoping to murder new in town good cop Chris Allen (Casey Affleck) on the day of the heist, eliciting the fury of the seasoned major crimes detective Jeffery Allen (Woody Harrelson), drawing the attention away from them.
Having such a stacked cast ultimately serves to be Triple 9’s greatest hindrance. There are so many characters here that the movie hardly has time to give any of them any personality. They’re all photocopies of the characters that have embodied every ‘cops and robbers’ movie since the dawn of the medium. This is particularly evident in our gang of criminals, who display next to no camaraderie whatsoever. In fact, in each scene they might as well be meeting for the very first time. This thin writing makes it very hard for any of these talented actors to infuse any sort of personality into the proceedings. Paul in particular laughably overcooks his turn as the group’s wild card, Mackie comes the closest to giving us something resembling a human being. The scenes focusing on his relationship to Casey Affleck’s character are just about the only ones given any memorable dialogue, and often contain the best action sequences. In fact, it’s a nicely subdued Affleck and a wildly off the wall Harrelson who end up running away with the film and our sympathies, which is a problem when the film clearly wants its audience to flip flop sides. We also have a laughably over the top Kate Winslet hamming up every scene she’s in, as it appears that she’s lost a bet with somebody that has forced her to do a terrible accent in every film she is in.
The direction by Hillcoat occasionally stinks of pedestrian TNT movie of the week level work, but there are flashes of his immense talent in there as well. The Atlanta setting feels very alive and realistic, with constant activity in both the foreground and background, especially in the action scenes. In fact, all of the shoot-outs and chases are fairly exciting, with a whole lot of brutal gore and brain matter flying everywhere to give the proceedings a nice sense of consequence. However, it often feels as though he’s being handcuffed by the modern day time period, as the more rustic aesthetic of his previous work fit his style of action a great deal better.
Triple 9 is the type of movie you catch on Cinemax in your underwear at 2 a.m. It’s perfectly workmanlike, and under the goggles of low standards and a couple beers, it may come off as an above average little action movie. However, for a film that wrangled together all of this talent both in front of and behind the camera, it should have been something more. This was an opportunity for Hillcoat to make his Heat, and get on the radar of casual film fans. Instead, it stands as a heist with a somewhat low take, that could have earned a lot more with fewer weak links in the chain.