The genre of cops and robbers has grown in favor since its inception back during Hollywood’s golden era. There used to be distinct delineations between the two sides of the law until filmmakers in the seventies and eighties began blurring those lines. Cops and criminals wrestling with moral ambiguities (DIRTY HARRY and most of director Michael Mann’s oeuvre) became a new subgenre – one filled with fascinating complexities and authenticity. Director John Hillcoat (THE PROPOSITION, LAWLESS) throws his hat into the arena with TRIPLE 9. Though it could have been a taut masterpiece, Hillcoat’s final product is only slightly above a passing grade, feeling slightly redundant of HEAT, THE DEPARTED and THE TOWN.
Despite being a very “Los Angeles” film (gangs, crime, somewhat mirrored locales), our story is set in Atlanta, Georgia (because of tax breaks and Norman Reedus’ WALKING DEAD shooting schedule). The metropolis has fallen to gang warfare and shady criminal activities, with one of the gangs being run by ruthless Russian-Israeli mob wife Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet). She’s looking to bust her husband out of jail, and has assembled a crew of ex-special ops and dirty cops. Those men include Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Lt. Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie), Detective Jorge Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr.), and literal brothers-in-arms Gabe (Aaron Paul) and Russel Welch (Reedus). And – credit to screenwriter Matt Cook – everybody’s got their resonant, concise reasons why they are in this game. The only way the crew can pull off her impossible heist is to stage a “999,” police code for shooting an officer.
Hillcoat has assembled quite a stellar ensemble, and most are able to carve out enough screen time to establish themselves. Casey Affleck turns in another solid performance, playing a straight-arrow rookie minus any genre clichés. Ejiofor, Mackie and Paul all show they could each headline a big action film. Collins Jr.’s ability to shift on a dime is impressive. Harrelson, playing a conflicted detective on an unstated permanent walk-of-shame, is also good, reminding us that RAMPART is a movie that exists. There’s a police pursuit through an apartment complex filled with visceral realism. The heist sequences are intense, thanks also in part to the sound design team (who must’ve taken pages from HEAT) and the pulsating score by Atticus and Leopold Ross, Bobby Krlic, and Claudia Sarne.
Nevertheless, similar to the antagonists’ best laid plans going pair-shaped, so does this film’s genuine intentions. Hillcoat, whose talent lies in spotlighting the complexities in the animalistic nature of male behavior, cannot escape the material’s derivative qualities. It doesn’t add much new to the genre – only recycles what we’ve seen before, watering it down. The plot gels at a predictable pace. The lack of conviction to anchor women in the power position is disheartening – when you think about it, they really are the ones calling the shots, subtly dictating these men’s actions. Female characters don’t really fare well; Winslet is definitely on point with Irina’s big hair and garish attire, but her accent is laughably awful, adding a “k” onto every word ending in “ing.” Noticeably missing is a deeply captivating villainous moment for her to truly shine. Gal Godot’s sole purpose, as Irina’s conniving sister Elena, is to breeze in and out of two scenes in short skirts. Teresa Palmer is sadly relegated to a thankless role as policeman’s worried wife. Let’s also not forget about Gabe’s prostitute junkie girlfriend who ends up dead in a shopping cart.
TRIPLE 9 is more like a code 470, looking like a forgery of spectacular crime-thrillers we’ve already experienced.
3 out of 5
TRIPLE 9 opens on February 29 and is rated R.