Director John Hillcoat has proved in his earlier film, The Road and Lawless, that he’s capable of getting terrific actors in interesting plots but still fails to make you watch the films for a second time. His latest effort Triple 9 pretty much has the exact same pitfalls as his earlier films.
Written by Matt Cook whose script was shortlisted for the 2010 Black List of best un-produced screenplays, Triple 9 has a hangover of Michael Mann’s films, complete with a huge star cast and a heist, but without the panache and intelligence.
In the film Atlanta cop Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor) plans to rob a bank with a pack of other cops in order to steal one particular artifact for Irina (Kate Winslet), a Russian Mafioso. Michael owes Irina and is neck deep in the pits of corruption and crime, and also has a son with Irina’s sister Elena (Gal Gadot).
He thinks this heist would help him walk away from the dark side, so he enlists Marcus (Anthony Mackie), Gabe (Aaron Paul), Russell (Norman Reedus), and Jorge (Clifton Collins) to help him in the heist.
Trouble shoots when Chris (Casey Affleck) joins the gang because his actions and behavior might get them all in the hands of Sergeant Allen (Woody Harrelson) breathing down their necks.
If you have seen at least one heist movie you’ll know that things don’t go according to plan. Once the plot is set up the film offers nothing but scowling faces and a bunch of heist and corrupt cop drama clichés. There is expletive laden power play between some of the characters, and the predictable twists of someone being in cahoots with someone else and double-crossing the man in charge.
Most of the film, in fact, spends more time in showing you how ugly and mirthless these guys are, rather than furthering the plot and actually planning the heist. It’s also not clear as to what we’re supposed to feel for Michael – he’s originally presented as someone who is caught up in the wrong side of things for no fault of his but the character often does unspeakable things to people that make you wonder why you should root for him. That’s not to blame Ejiofor’s performance because he’s mostly solid – it’s just that there is no deeper nuance in the screenplay, because everything feels painted in bold strokes.
One other problem in Triple 9 is that Sargent Allen and his band of cops never really seem like they’re doing much to double down on the heist gang. So the fact that the cops are chasing cops never plays out to clever strategized chases – the confrontations are a mélange of swear words and gunfire instead of clever cat and mouse games.
There’s little suspense or mystery, and the huge star cast does little to stand out – you could replace one actor with another in the heist gang and there would make absolutely no difference to the way the movie plays out.
In that way this is more of an Antoine Fuqua movie that pretends to be a Michael Mann film. And when the hundredth exposition scene of cops being corrupt because their lives suck appears, you’ll have lost interest in the film. If Hillcoat had trimmed down the number of characters Triple 9 would probably have had more focus and mystery instead of the loud and silly mess that it ultimately is.