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Triple 9

Theatrical Review

Open Road; 115 minutes

Director: John Hillcoat

Written by on February 26, 2016 

John Hillcoat is going to make a great film someday. Each of his last three films (Lawless, The Road, The Proposition) have skirted this quality to various degrees, bringing together top-tier casts, evocatively oppressive atmospheres, and muddied, morally-compromised perspectives, but they’ve never quite coalesced into something spectacular. Triple 9 is Hillcoat’s latest trip into the gray, and despite a pedigree of able performers in front of the camera, it’s an exhaustively cynical, morally-empty crime film that has neither the pacing to work as a B-film or the loftier ideas in place to work as a serious investigation of corruption.

Triple 9 centers on a group of various law enforcement members – detectives, police officers, special operations, etc. – who have been backed into a pact with the sadistic Russian Jewish mafia to rob federal banks. They orchestrate these heists with an exacting set of rules and nonlethal force (sort of), but they’re tired of the blackmail and the repeated promise of “one more job” by Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet), the wife of the imprisoned leader of the mafia.

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Blue blood is thicker than water, but the crew’s trust in each other is starting to evaporate nonetheless. Gabe (Aaron Paul) is threatening their entire operation by becoming increasingly reckless and coping poorly with his past as a junkie. Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is being kept from his son, and is beginning to slip. Marcus (Anthony Mackie) is having a crisis of conscience. And Franco (Clifton Collins Jr.) is one more mistake away from putting a bullet in Gabe. All the while, they’re only a few steps ahead of a wheedling druggie detective (Woody Harrelson), and dealing with Michael’s new partner (Casey Affleck), the hotshot nephew of Harrelson’s character.

This is a rich set of scenarios, but only about one of them feels like anything more than a placeholder conflict, and that’s only because Harrelson guides his performance with such cokehead mania that it feels like he just walked off the set of a more vibrant, searching Abel Ferrara film than the grim, perfunctory crime exercise he’s saddled with.

Written by first-timer Matt Cook, who inexplicably ended up on The Black List with this script, Triple 9’s dialogue is bargain-bin Martin Scorsese and Michael Mann, littered with four-letter words and terse conversations about masculinity and sacrifice, but unable to follow through on any larger viewpoints past clenched posturing.

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And while Mann seems an obvious touchstone for this story of professionals, David Ayer is the more obvious brethren in terms of viewpoint. But the difference is that Ayer’s scorched earth worldview comes with a splash of fantasy – a cocktail of over-the-top characters mixed with over-the-top allegiances. It’s black hats and white hats expanded to cartoonish proportions. Triple 9’s confrontations never bubble past the petty and the profane.

It’s not just the risible dialogue, but a real hammering tendency for exposition in the script. In one of the most laughable exchanges, the crew starts talking around the possibility of a 999 for a scheme until Michael’s character (who is importantly also a cop) says, “Enough with the cop shit. English, what is a 999?” The rest of the script is smothered in equally clumsy explanation that still can’t help the incoherency around the latter part of the film.

There isn’t much to say about the performances here. They’re all pretty stock representations of tortured tough guys. This is the type of film where characters in a daze of desperation pass around a bottle of Jack as if that’s enough to represent their inner conflicts. Paul, in particular, is basically playing a less-defined version of his own Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad down to the beady eye movement and jittery hand tics.

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It’s hard to say whether these parts would feel less archetypal with less star power, but there is certainly a distracting aspect to seeing some of these actors flex so hard to elevate the material. Ejiofor, especially, is wringing his soul out to the last drop by the second half. But Irena is the real nadir of the film. Played by Winslet, she’s an embarrassing collection of “Ruskie” tropes, and a worthy early candidate for the worst accent of the year.

Other than Winslet’s character, Triple 9 would have a difficult time passing the “Sexy Lamp” test with its female characters. Teresa Palmer plays little more than the blandly supportive wife while Gal Gadot exists only to flit in and out of the frame in skimpy clothing.

In the moments of sheer movement, such as a breathless raid through a dealer’s home, Hillcoat knows exactly how to tighten the screws, panning hesitantly around every corner. Backed by Atticus Ross’ cyberpunk synths and bruising sine waves, the film that could have been emerges, but in between, Triple 9 is as incoherent visual mess.

Bradford Young will certainly have some words for cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis, who lenses every scene in a mannered, muted darkness that’s meant to amplify the moodiness, but only reinforces the inept lighting around the African-American players. From moment to moment, Mackie and Ejiofor are nearly entirely blotted out, and even a scene in daylight manages to plainly mangle Michael K. Williams‘ already shamefully tone-deaf scene as a trans prostitute.

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This is Hillcoat’s film and his sense of nihilism shows through here, but it can’t help but dull the impact and contort the themes until the tone and the script are completely at odds with each other. The body counts rack up, but rarely does it feel like there’s any point other than artificially raising the stakes. And never mind that the MacGuffin that they spend the whole film trying to find (bafflingly, a box of floppy discs) is nothing more than another chip to stage a larger point about corruption and the fundamental evil of people in the most cheap way possible.

The script feigns to deal with larger subjects at first, showing Mackie’s character being a regular around some of the seedier parts of town, but these characters are rarely developed beyond placeholders of criminality. Politics are beside the point when it comes to the Russian Jewish mafia and the gang members, but regardless of political correctness, it’s just lazy to see that their identity boils down to little more than visual signifiers: Yarmulkes (bizarrely worn at all times) for the Russian mafia and tattoos for the gang members.

By the time Triple 9 has reached its last reel, the conclusions aren’t unexpected, but it’s a slap in the face to a more complicated reading of the actions of these characters, settling for a climax that quenches bloodlust, but little else. Triple 9 isn’t trying to be something of grand social value. It wants to be pulp, and maybe it’s unfair to criticize it for issues of racism and sexism, but its clockwork, convoluted plot isn’t clever, and it’s certainly not very memorable.

Triple 9 is now in wide release.


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