'Triple 9': Film Review

A powerhouse crime drama in which it's difficult to invest.

Casey Affleck, Kate Winslet, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Woody Harrelson star in John Hillcoat's movie about corrupt cops ready to use the exceptional skills they learned in the military for their own, rather than the public, good.

A relentless dirty-cop thriller drenched in a sulfurous atmosphere of corruption and dread, Triple 9 is like a drill that just keeps boring down deeper into your skull for two hours. Director John Hillcoat stages some spectacular crime sequences in ways that seem like announcements that he's prepared to assume the mantel of big-scale action maestro from Michael Mann, and the stellar cast offers constant stimulation. All the same, the venal duplicity of many of the characters here becomes unrelentingly depressing, as does the eventual feeling of being overwhelmed by pervasive nihilism. But based on its kinetic excitement and performances that sparkle in the dark, this Open Road release should attract an ample audience with a taste for tough guys and hard action.

It's a full-time job trying to suss out the dramatic intricacies and character relationships that make up the intricately designed web that is Matt Cook's original screenplay, and Hillcoat flees from overt exposition as if by instinct. But the general set-up is clear: Atlanta has a full complement of corrupt criminal cops ready to put the exceptional skills they learned in the military to their own, rather than the public, good.

Driven by an ominous, pulsating electronic score that enshrouds the proceedings with a doom-laden low-lying cloud that never lifts, the film achieves instant viewer immersion with a 10-minute action sequence that must have tied up traffic in the city for several days. Led by cop and former Special Forces ace Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a gang comprising police and/or ex-military (Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Clifton Collins Jr. and Norman Reedus) pulls off a bank job that spirals into a battle on a crowded freeway that gets very messy. Even though the audience has no investment in the characters or the outcome at this early stage, the muscular opening certainly triggers curiosity about the dynamics driving such an audacious and intricately planned heist.

More intriguing still is the revelation that behind it all is the queen bee of an Israeli-Russian mob, Irina Vlaslov, commandingly and wittily played by Kate Winslet in a way that makes you instantly want to see her as Lady Macbeth. With her husband off in prison, Irina uses a local Kosher food operation as a front (the slaughterhouse functions as an apt home away from home) and longs for his release. In the meantime, however, she's as ruthless as Stalin and forces Michael to take on one more robbery, a long-shot scheme that will require great daring and skill and, most of all, very good luck.

Any description of Cook's intricate plot would make Triple 9 sound more coherent and comprehensible than it comes across while experiencing the film. After the initial set-up, Hillcoat cuts the story's body mass very close to the bone, omitting names, leaving dots unconnected and rejecting back story, psychology and even motivation for the criminal acts these presumably once-upright soldiers have now embraced. Many classic films about criminal enterprises, from The Asphalt Jungle and The Killing to Reservoir Dogs to The Usual Suspects, center on fundamentally unsavory characters, but the best of them provide viewers with reasons to engage with the underdogs. Hillcoat's last pic, Lawless, suffered from a lack of psychological and emotional interest in its characters and, likewise, Triple 9 provides its principals no depth, saving graces or reasons to grant them even a grain of sympathy, hence the punishingly dire mood that envelops the proceedings.

What does generate interest and tension is the overlapping of good and bad, between policeman/soldier and criminal within the same people, and between seen-it-all Detective Sergeant Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson) and his upstanding gang task-force cop nephew Chris (a bulked-up Casey Affleck), whose law enforcement partner turns out to be one of the crims. Some of the film's most electric sequences take place in neighborhoods entirely dominated by heavily tattooed and insolent gang members, guys Chris has to deal with everyday, just as the resourceful Michael must be on his toes in his dealings with Irina, whose word means nothing.

Individual scenes are charged with energy, tense confrontations are numerous and Hillcoat and Cook's intentions were undoubtedly partly to tease and taunt viewers with uncertainly about where they, and the characters, stand, to figure out who's got the power and who doesn't. If it was possible to give a damn about any of them, it would help, but without much investment, one just sits back with increasing detachment and bemused curiosity as to where and on whom the next shoe will drop.

It spoils nothing to reveal that the mysterious title refers to cop parlance for “officer down,” inside information used to distract police to one location while a big crime is being pulled off at another.

The strong actors all suggest deep commitment to characters who are almost exclusively seen in extremis, dealing with crises either of their own making or that come with their jobs. What with this and the Sundance hit Manchester by the Sea, Affleck is already having an exceptional 2016. Almost everyone has their moments, including some character actors and bit players only briefly onscreen, but it is still Winslet's unique figure of a crime boss who most sticks in the mind.

Distributor: Open Road Films
Production companies: Anonymous Content, MadRiver Pictures
Cast: Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Clifton Collins Jr., Norman Reedus, Teresa Palmer, Michael K. Williams, Gal Gadot, Woody Harrelson, Kate Winslet
Director: John Hillcoat
Screenwriter: Matt Cook
Producers: Keith Redmon, Brad Dorros, Marc Butan, Anthony Katagas, Christopher Woodrow, John Hillcoat
Executive producers: Steve Golin, Paul Green, Tom Ortenberg, Peter Lawson, Molly Conners, Maria Cestone, Sarah E. Johnson, Kimberly Fox, Isabel Dos Santos
Director of photography: Nicolas Karakatsanis
Production designer: Tim Grimes
Costume designer: Margot Wilson
Editor: Dylan Tichenor
Music: Atticus Ross, Claudia Sarne, Leopold Ross, Bobby Krlic
Casting: Lisa Mae Fincannon

Rated R, 115 minutes