Film Review – Triple 9
Crime drama is one of my favorite genres. It distills morality into its basic elements, and then tosses it into the air. What dynamic better demonstrates the complexities of good vs. evil than cops and robbers? No matter how often we see it, there’s something fundamental that keeps it going. Greed, lust, desperation, and betrayal – these themes all play a part in crime drama, and when done right can be endlessly watchable.
Triple 9 (2016) has a lot of this going on. Directed by John Hillcoat and written by Matt Cook, this is a nasty bit of pulp noir that knows what it is and makes no attempt to be otherwise. These characters live on either side of the law, and what side they step on rests on their own need for survival. It’s bloated, messy, and gruesomely violent, but within the grime is a proficiency that makes it better than it has any right to be.
Matt Cook’s screenplay stuffs the narrative with a heavy plot and a lot of characters. An opening scene has a group of criminals robbing a bank. Hillcoat’s direction (with Nicolas Karakatsanis’ cinematography) captures it in a direct and immediate fashion. It’s aggressive and propulsive, like much of the action that happens throughout. We learn the names of the robbers: Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Marcus (Anthony Mackie), Jorge (Clifton Collins Jr.), Russell (Norman Reedus), and Gabe (Aaron Paul).
The crew is skillful at what they do, but we soon realize that they’re on the brink of falling apart. Gabe is a drug addict, barely holding on with the support of his brother Russell. Michael served overseas, and appears to be the smartest of the bunch. He wants to get out of the business, but his ties to the Russian/Jewish mafia, led by the ruthless Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet) has kept him and his family on a tight leash. Jorge is so deep in darkness that he borders being a sociopath, and Marcus tags along out of loyalty to his brethren. What makes this group unique is that, although they are good at what they do, some of them are actually police officers.
That’s where the narrative tension is born, seeing a group of cops commit this crime, and then use the badge to escape. But can any of them truly make it out? Once a person crosses that line, can they ever go back to the side of justice? Some of them are so far gone that when Irina proposes a new job too dangerous to be handled routinely, they consider committing a 999 to cause a distraction. A “999” is police code for “officer down.” They know that the entire force will come to the aid of a fellow officer, but who among them is willing to pull the trigger?
I’ll admit to you: I eat this stuff up. Characters pushed beyond their own moral code is gripping when executed believably. How do they compromise themselves and what are the ramifications of those decisions? What is the effect it has on their loved ones? It’s a great cinematic quandary. To make things more complicated, the plot tosses in two good cops. Chris (Casey Affleck) is straight as an arrow, a narrative descendent of Serpico himself. He was transferred from an outside precinct and, wouldn’t you know it, he gets partnered with one of the dirty cops. We also have Sergeant Detective Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson), a boozed up schlub assigned to investigate the opening heist. If the coincidences aren’t stacked up enough, Jeffrey and Chris are related.
It’s a melting pot of names and dilemmas, but through Hillcoat’s direction it never gets convoluted. Character motivations are crystal clear, and even though things get out of hand, we understand how one event leads to another. The tone is gritty and dirty. This is not the kind of world we want to live in – we’re dropped into back alleys, slaughterhouses, abandoned buildings, and strip clubs. Neighborhoods are filled with gangsters not afraid to confront others with extreme brutality. Some might find this to be too unyielding, but Hillcoat never allows it to descend into depression. The tension is built so that we can’t help but see how it plays out.
The performances are all well done. Chiwetel Ejiofor continues his strong work as a man whose sole motivation is bringing his family together. He plays Michael as relentless, even cruel, but that edge comes from a deeper love for his family. It’s a love that has been twisted through time. Kate Winslet, in a supporting role, is having obvious fun playing the central villain. With bright red outfits, a golden mane, and a Russian accent that comes and goes at random, Winslet flirts at caricature with unapologetic glee. Woody Harrelson will be the performance to remember. He plays the detective barely able to stand up, and as a result gets a lot of laughs. Jeffrey Allen is so unkempt that it’s a miracle he can keep his pants on.
Triple 9 is not a great movie. The dialogue never sizzles; there are no great lines to lift the material. Casey Affleck’s character is somewhat of a snooze. In a story filled with colorful characters his is squarest of all. And the final act ties up the loose strings much too conveniently. Where things fell apart rapidly, everything came together just as fast, pulling us away from plausibility. But that didn’t dissuade me from the good things going on. This was a vicious, muscular story with characters that lived and died by the gun. In terms of film, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.