Triple 9 starts off too smart to end so stupidly.
By the midway point, it seemed poised to join the modern cop/criminal classics like Heat, Narc and End of Watch, but by its conclusion it bungles the caper.
The film is guilty of one of my major pet peeves where the characters are as smart or as dumb as needed. From scene to scene the characters can be these brilliant strategists able to account for any scenario, but the next moment they’re making idiotic decisions seemingly just so they can get caught or killed. The logic inconsistencies are so frustrating as the characters put themselves in situations where the outcome is too predictable.
A group of Atlanta-based corrupt cops and ex-military led by Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are blackmailed by the Russian mob under orders of the kingpin’s wife Irina (Kate Winslet) to pull off an impossible heist. Michael’s crew of brothers Russel (Norman Reedus) and Gabe (Aaron Paul) and dirty cops (Anthony Mackie and Clifton Collins) are out of viable options until they decide to further cross the line and murder a police officer, which would distract the police force and allow them to stage their heist. And in newly arrived officer Chris (Casey Affleck), the nephew of high-ranking detective Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson), the crew thinks they’ve found the perfect target.
Director John Hillcoat (The Road) establishes an inviting, mesmerizing atmosphere of cops, criminals and heists. Hillcoat controls the quieter, reserved scenes well richly framing the characters to simultaneously give them a larger than life presence while making them regular people caught in a crazy situation.
But it’s when the action heats up that the film is at its best. The opening heist scene is instantly enthralling even as things don’t go perfectly according to plan. A mid-film police raid is dynamic and the tension so apparent Hillcoat masterfully offers that sense that at any second everything is going to go nuts. It’s the film’s signature sequence, which makes the final act all the more frustrating as it can’t match up thanks to questionable character decision making.
In his first major script, Matt Cook gets overwhelmed by the amount of characters. Cook’s overly ambitious plan to juggle 10-12 characters is admirable, but only if he’d been able to pull it off. Instead, character development is done in broad strokes and there’s little time to get into the characters’ heads to explore their motivations.
Michael’s sole focus is to spend more time with his son not the promise of a big payday from Irina, his son’s aunt. Michael’s storyline of how he got connected with the Russian Jewish mob and why he’s estranged from his son’s mother, Elena (Gal Gadot) would’ve been more than enough to carry the film on its own. Likewise, Chris’ desire to work in a busier police district and gets targeted by a corrupt unit would have worked just as well.
Of the various characters, Michael and Chris are the more traditional heroic/relatable ones, but Cook has their subplots fighting for attention with everyone else even though they’re the easiest to get the audience invested. Instead, Cook tries to give equal time to every character and doesn’t do right by anyone. That hinders the impressive cast as well. Gadot barely has any speaking lines and is mostly used as high-profile eye candy. Ejiofor and Affleck have slightly more to work with, but it’s Harrelson who brings some much needed oomph to the film.
For its faults, I was very impressed with the film’s inclusive cast makeup, which is far more representative of modern America with blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians, Israeli and gay characters. Best of all? No one made a big deal out of it and race was barely mentioned.
From a technical, proficient viewpoint, Triple 9 is right in step with other heist epics, but it lacks the depth and character development to be a classic.
Rating: 5 out of 10
Photo Credit: Bob Mahoney/Open Road Films