Director John Hillcoat entertains a distinct vision of the seedier facets of humanity. Everyone existing within his twisted worlds exudes depravity – including the protagonists. In “Triple 9,” the good guys wear black, but so do the villains, the victims, and the bystanders. While the construction of his strikingly flawed characters beckons with a macabre intrigue, the faults don’t stop with just their morals. An illogicality engulfs their motives and decisions, leading the audience towards a conclusion both predictable and unconvincing, only peppered with brief moments of exhilaration instead of dowsed in memorably evocative musings on criminality.
Former black ops soldiers Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Russell Welch (Norman Reedus) have joined with Atlanta, Georgia police detectives Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie), Franco Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr.), and Gabe Welch (Aaron Paul), to carry out a bank job for devious mobster Irina Vaslov (Kate Winslet). Though the burglary is successful, their situation quickly sours when Belmont is partnered with new transfer Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), whose uncle, Sergeant Jeff Allen (Woody Harrelson), leads the investigation into the robbery. As the two Allens steadily close in on the identities of the crooked cops and their accomplices, Irina makes new demands on Atwood, forcing the gang of thieves to risk everything on one last heist.
It begins with a rather tepid cold open, establishing the major motif that “Triple 9” almost unintentionally cements; it’s not going for action or “The Fast and the Furious” styled adventure fantasies that this cast would suggest, but rather stark, brutal reality. Or, at least, director John Hillcoat’s perception of reality. Here, the exercise is about unveiling the most repulsive side of cops and robbers or police versus criminals – the sordid underbelly of corrupt officials and anarchic gangsters. It’s evident that a film is in trouble when the only moral compass is a doped-up drunk with a penchant for crack-addicted hookers. In his attempt to deglamorize the world of high-stakes heists, Hillcoat has gone so far as to remove all glimmer of compassion; in exposing the ruthlessness of humankind, he’s also forgotten to craft even a single sympathetic character. Although Affleck’s Allen is intended to be somewhat innocent, the role is practically that of an extra – he’s not the center of anything except randomness, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
On the subject of realism, Hillcoat chooses to detail subtle grotesqueries instead of character development or absorbing storylines. An early bank holdup sequence highlights this with a shot of a woman lying in a pool of her own urine, utterly petrified by the discharged weapons and ski-masked terrorizers. These are certainly not the lovable likes of Butch Cassidy and Sundance or even Bonnie and Clyde. But when everything is ugly (the people, the locations, the activities, the motives), audiences are likely to become indifferent to who lives or dies and who wins or loses. Even Gal Gadot (briefly appearing as a former lover), who is too physically attractive in that unfitting Hollywood way, inhabits a detestable persona.
The bad guys are bad, the good guys are bad, and the background characters are worse; even the dancers in a strip club are devoid of the usual glamor. It’s particularly unfortunate that Kate Winslet took part in this dour venture, as her donning of a Russian accent to squeeze a hint of a challenge from her one-dimensional character does nothing except detract from her previously exceptional performance in “Steve Jobs.” But perhaps more unforgivable than the morbidity of every scenario and the disagreeableness of every participant is the lack of a creative plot. The heists, filled with unaffecting violence and cruelty, aren’t thrilling or unique. As a result, it never seems to matter whether or not they’re completed – and whether or not casualties are incurred.