The latest film from director John Hilllcoat is a deadly game of cops and robbers. The rub in “Triple 9” is that the cops are the robbers. Painted with a thick coat of fictional grit capable of kicking in our audience doors, the director’s sixth feature aims to be a new “Heat” for this era. Boasting a stellar top-shelf cast of dedicated, yet mismatched parts, “Triple 9” does its best to battle treacherous flaws.
Oscar nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor is Michael Belmont, the leader of a highly-trained and well-organized five-man team of thieves. In a daring daylight bank robbery in the film’s opening scene, his team makes off with a safety deposit box before narrowly escaping apprehension when they are forced to switch getaway vehicles. It stems from a screw-up caused by the team’s weak link, Gabe (Aaron Paul), the loser little brother of Russell (Norman Reedus), the team’s eyes-and-ears. When they get clear and part ways, the last two members of the team, Marcus and Jorge (Anthony Mackie and Clifton Collins, Jr.), put back on their badges and head back to the police department for the rest of the work day. Let the game of dirty cops and robbers begin.
Belmont’s score is earmarked for Irina Vlaslov, the ruthless wife of a jailed Russian-Jewish mafioso. Academy Award winner Kate Winslet throws on a weak accent and pushes up the cleavage to rule in her husband’s place with a quietly sadistic severity. Belmont is mixed up with Irina because he’s the father of her nephew by way of her little sister Elena (Gal Gadot). He’s given one more job with his son held as collateral before he can rid himself of her control. You might read that as Belmont being a sympathetic hero hood, but he is decidedly not. You have to love Ejiofor’s dedication to lighting his fuses with the emotional circuit breaker firmly set to off.
The foils for these callous pilferers are a pair of slightly truer blue cop brothers. Woody Harrelson essentially plays a version of his weed-loving and outspoken self as Sergeant Detective Jeffrey Allen. Unprofessional unless it counts and fueled by filthy vices, Jeffrey makes small moves where he can to maintain his cred both on the street and in the force. His younger gum-chewing brother Chris (Casey AfflecK) is a rookie cop with a wife (Teresa Palmer) and kid at home. He’s a former Marine and comes from a cushy precinct to be saddled as Marcus’s reluctant new partner, trolling the projects to quell an ever-present turf war between Hispanic gangs.
With one more difficult heist between Michael’s team and wealthy freedom, the metaphorical swords of clean and dirty laundry go on to cause nothing but more blood stains. Possessing unpredictable tension, “Triple 9” plays its chess match with no fear of chalking up a steady and shocking body count. The musical score, led by “The Social Network” Oscar winner Atticus Ross, makes sure of that with a creepy and consuming electronic score that punctuates the film’s ferocity. As a heist film, “Triple 9” impresses with thrilling and meticulous action sequences that favor raw realism over operatic spoils while tearing up Atlanta. Hillcoat and his team serve up those stiff shots with no chaser to calm what comes next. The twists and betrayals add up nicely.
What spoils too much of the good action graces of “Triple 9” is a problem of cohesion in two areas. First, with this many moving parts in the ensemble, red herrings, and double crosses, the story becomes disorderly in resolution. Some angles and characters miss the valuable attention and detail to be worth the time. The secondary Hispanic adversaries are treated as one-dimensional, tattoo-covered trigger men of little importance.
The other missing part is complete chemistry. Just about everyone from this top-shelf cast got the memo to play this film tough and mean it. Ejiofor, Collins, Affleck, and even Winslet give this movie balls of steel. The guy who doesn’t mean it, and feels completely out of place because of it, is Woody Harrelson. He feels like he’s from a different movie. In a serious film where no one is going to smile, he brings glee and self-aware indifference to break the rigidity. He’s the character with the most personality and garners the only laughs, but either it can’t be just him (meaning he needed an equal adversary) or his singularity weakens a tightrope that was at its best when it never wavered from the danger everyone else brought to it.
Lesson #1: Don’t procreate with a mobster’s family if you are trying to get away from the mob— I know Gal “Wonder Woman” Gadot is smoking hot (and hooray beautiful biracial babies), Chiwetel, but come on, man. You’re a professional criminal. You know the rule: Don’t s–t where you eat.
Lesson #2: Your heist and your team is only as strong as your weakest link— This cliche rings true in almost every heist film and surfaces in “Triple 9.” There’s always someone that deviates from the plan, someone not completely on point, someone greedy, or someone who talks. Wouldn’t it be nice to see one heist movie where the bad guys keep their act together without cracking.
Lesson #3: The meaning and severity of police code “999”— The film gets its title from police communication Code 999 meaning “urgent help needed/officer down.” The plot demands that this code be used. You get to wait and guess who’s going to be put in the cross-hairs.