DIR: John Hillcoat • WRI: Matt Cook • PRO: Marc Butan, Bard Dorros, Anthony Katagas, Keith Redmon, Christopher Woodrow • DOP: Nicolas Karakatsanis • ED: Dylan Tichenor • DES: Tim Grimes • MUS: Bobby Krlic, Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross, Claudia Sarne • CAST: Gal Gadot, Teresa Palmer, Norman Reedus
John Hillcoat returns to feature-length filmmaking after four years with Triple 9, a gritty crime thriller in which the cops are the robbers, as four corrupt officers and ex-military commit heists on behalf of the Jewish mafia. As with Hillcoat’s previous film, Lawless, the most striking element is its ensemble cast. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Winslet, Casey Affleck, Anthony Mackie, Woody Harrelson, Aaron Paul, and Norman Reedus all come together in this story of blackmail and treachery.
Ex-military officer Terrell Tompkins (Ejiofor) works with former partners Jorge, Marcus (Mackie), and the Welch brothers (Paul and Reedus) to steal from the Russian mafia, an obligation Terrell is forced to do because of his son being held by the head of the Jewish mafia, Irina Vlaslov (Winslet). When one heist isn’t enough for Vlaslov to return Terrell’s son, the men decide to commit a “999” (which is police code for “officer down”), because it will distract law enforcement from the much bigger robbery occurring across town. And as the men determine which officer they should kill, Marcus’s new partner, Chris (Affleck), seems to be the perfect candidate.
Allowing a cast of this size to share an almost equal amount of time on screen means the narrative is more complicated than it may appear. Omitted from the description is Chris’s uncle, Jeff (Harrelson), whose appearance in the film is frequent but whose impact on the narrative is questionable. As are a lot of things in this film. The screenwriter, Matt Cook, confuses complex with confusing when developing the relationship and motivation between Terrell and Irina. Her withholding of Terrell’s son is not quite a kidnapping since the child’s mother is also Irina’s sister nor are there any restraints to seeing one another. As the key motivation for Terrell’s actions, the question of why exactly he has to do anything looms over the film’s entire story. So, too, are some of the actions the Jewish mafia commit over the course of the film, that only make sense from a writing standpoint to create tension, but is utterly baffling within the narrative.
This being a crime thriller, the tone of this movie is emphatically gritty. Everyone has tattoos and a five o’clock shadow, never smile, only scowl, drink Jack Daniels, and speak with low gravelly voices. Even Kate Winslet appears entirely unlike herself with heavy hairspray, heavy makeup, and a Jewish-American accent. By the forceful creation of this noir-esque mood, there’s a hilarious absurdity to its commitment, especially with some of the choices the film makes. While Jeff continues his investigation into the first robbery, he questions Sweet Pea (played by The Wire’s Michael Kenneth Williams), a cross-dressing prostitute with a neon-pink papillon dog. Likewise, there was and still is a Jewish mafia, but the image of mobsters in stereotypical Jewish attire who do nothing but dispose people in kosher meat trucks throughout the film is unintentionally funny. By inserting these moments into the film, Hillcoat seems self-consciously reluctant to commit to the tone he’s trying desperately to create and makes the overall atmosphere fall flat.
All that aside, Triple 9 has a very smooth and fast pace which makes the film’s set pieces more effective than not. Aside from the two heists, the shootouts in the film utilize the tight locations well enough to create a tense, claustrophobic ambience reminiscent of the concluding moments to Silence of the Lambs. And, though some performances are average at best (particularly Reedus and Ejiofor), Aaron Paul is finally given a character he can work well with, unlike his earlier attempts moving onto the big screen, and Anthony Mackie proves himself to be a compelling performer deserving of more roles outside of the Marvel blockbusters. But, as a whole, the ideas, themes, and talent the film brings together don’t quite blend well enough to be satisfying in this otherwise generic crime thriller.
16 (See IFCO for details)
Triple 9 is released 19th February 2016