Alexander Pope once said, “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.” Expectations are a funny thing, and run in concert with ambition. The greater a filmmaker’s ambition, generally expectations are raised right along with it. The problems arise when a film has all of the necessary ingredients to achieve greatness, and yet the ambition is shockingly weak. Such is the case with “Triple 9”, a decent-sized cop thriller from an accomplished director whose three prior features; “The Proposition”, “The Road”, and “Lawless”, were muscular, machismo-laden dramas that should make him perfect for a story on corrupt cops. With a cast that any director would sell off their kids for, the film should truly be something special, and yet the end result is merely a serviceable thriller with few memorable qualities.
“Triple 9” is a good film, but it should have been great. Matt Cooke’s screenplay drew acclaim as part of the Black List, the best unproduced screenplays going around Hollywood. It teases some interesting, unexpected twists that unfortunately never pan out into anything remotely surprising. What it does with fairly rote material is still entertaining, largely due to the novelty of the A-list cast and Hillcoat’s slow-burn pacing. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Michael, a bank robber with Special Forces training who pulls off jobs with his military pal, Russell (“The Walking Dead”‘s Norman Reedus), a pair of corrupt cops in Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Jorge (Clifton Collins Jr.), and Russell’s drug addict brother, Gabe (Aaron Paul). The opening crime, while simple in design, is nonetheless a barnburner given energy and street-level grit by DP Nicholas Karakatsanis, who does tremendous work throughout.
None of these guys are what you would call saints, but even they are being manipulated by a more devious power, Irina (Kate Winslet, sporting big hair and bigger Russian accent), a mobster’s wife who neglects payment and demands they take on another, near-impossible job. Michael, the de facto leader of the crew, refuses, but he’s forced into it by Irina’s violent tendencies. Plus, Irina’s sister (Wonder Woman herself, Gal Gadot) is the mother of his son, and he doesn’t want them to take him away for good. To pull off this unlikely crime, they’ll need to buy some extra time. One way to do it is to cause a “triple 9”, police code for an officer down, by killing Marcus’ new partner, Chris Allen (Casey Affleck).
Chris is pretty much the only redeemable character in the entire film, and that includes Chris’ uncle (Woody Harrelson, playing a less racist version of his Rampart character), who happens to be investigating the robberies by Michael’s crew. But Chris is also barely a part of the narrative thrust for much of the film, as it focuses mostly on Michael’s crumbling group and their various bouts of conscience. There isn’t a single turn the film takes that you haven’t seen before in any film directed by David Ayer (“End of Watch”, “Sabotage”). There’s no honor among thieves or dirty cops, and that’s especially true when you combine both. Betrayals are set up a mile in advance and play out exactly as anyone could easily predict.
While certainly familiar, the cast makes up for much of it, even though only a few of the starry bunch get well-rounded characters to portray. Mackie gets the meatiest role by far, as Marcus is conflicted over being asked to kill one of his brothers in blue. Affleck is perfectly solid as Chris, but the character is too thinly-drawn and mostly out of the action until the final stretch. Ejiofor brings his usual commanding presence, and he’s particularly good when paired up with Winslet, although she probably could have turned the hamminess up a few notches. Think what Jessica Chastain was able to do in “A Most Violent Year” and that’s where Winslet should have gone, but she’s disappointingly straight-laced. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is an appearance by “The Wire”‘s Michael K. Williams, and let’s just say you’ll never look at Omar Little the same way again.
“Triple 9” should scratch the itch for fans of the genre, but those who look at the incredible level of talent and expect a shotgun blast of raw power; you’re only going to get a .22.