Opening with a thrilling bank heist perpetrated by a group of highly-skilled and heavily-armed operatives, John Hillcoat’s Triple 9 throws its first curveball somewhere around the 15-minute mark, when it reveals that the group of masked criminals who just shot their way out of a traffic jam is mostly comprised of police officers, both former and current.
There’s Marcus (Anthony Mackie), a veteran of the gang task force, and Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr.), a high-ranking homicide detective, along with Russell (Norman Reedus) and his meth-addicted younger brother, Gabe (Aaron Paul). At the top of the food chain is Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a former Blackwater agent who gets his marching orders from the wife of a Russian mobster.
Plotting to free her husband from captivity, Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet) has another job for Michael and his team, a nigh-impossible robbery of a secure facility where they’ll be severely outnumbered and outgunned, even before the local police respond to the scene. The only way they stand a chance is to make sure the other cops have their hands full by staging a “999” (police code for “officer down”) on the other side of town, which will cause all available units to converge on the area and leave the gang free to storm the facility with one less threat to worry about.
Of course, this plan doesn’t work unless they have a target, and Marcus serves up his new partner Chris (Casey Affleck) as the sacrificial lamb. But just because Chris is an honest and hard-working cop doesn’t mean he’s naive enough to get caught in the crosshairs – especially when his uncle, a Major Crimes investigator (Woody Harrelson), is starting to piece together information on the culprits behind that bank heist…
First-time screenwriter Matt Cook weaves an exceptionally dense and complicated narrative that’s easy to lose track of, especially when it offers so little information about its characters. Chris is clearly meant to be the hero – we know this because he’s the only cop who doesn’t engage in some sort of illegal activity throughout the course of the film – but like everyone else, is so underdeveloped that there’s almost nothing for the audience to latch onto and connect with.
When it comes to performances, there are virtually zero complaints to levy against the cast. Winslet and Harrelson are the standouts here, and Affleck continues to flirt with leading man territory, but there isn’t a single member of the ensemble that isn’t bringing their A-game. If the script gave them just a little bit more to work with, then the collective talent assembled could easily have elevated the finished product to incredible heights.
The saving grace of Triple 9 comes courtesy of its action sequences, from the opening theft to the nail-biting pursuit of a cartel hitman through a crowded housing project. Each of these lengthy episodes crackles with tension and excitement, and the superb electronic score from Atticus Ross conjures visions of similar white-knuckle moments in last year’s Sicario, a superior film which shares some common themes with Hillcoat’s latest effort.
Triple 9 certainly isn’t a bad film, and audiences looking to take a stroll through the seedy underbelly of law enforcement will find plenty to enjoy here. But I can’t help but wonder how much a leaner, tighter screenplay with more character development and less convoluted plot threads would have improved the experience.