Playing like a neo-noir with A.D.D., John Hillcoat’s Triple 9 is moderately fun, for what it is. Wearing its influences on its sleeve, the film borrows heavily from better films such as Heat and The Departed, but ultimately fails to rise above its cliche-ridden script and express anything meaningful. Still, for fans of somewhat mindless action-spectacles there are certainly worse ways to spend two hours at the movies.
Whereas Heat looked beyond its cops-and-robbers premise to examine the midlife crises of its leads, and The Departed analyzed systemic corruption from a variety of interesting angles, Triple 9 can’t seem to decide what it wants to be about. While a visually interesting and tightly choreographed opening heist-sequence promises a more engaging film, it proves to have been little more than a bait-and-switch distraction once the plot kicks in. To summarize the story that Triple 9 is trying to tell would be a wasted effort, as there is nothing on display here that hasn’t already been explicated more effectively . Every crime movie trope is on display, from crooked cops to golden-hearted safecrackers to villainous mobsters with (shaky) foreign accents, but no new ground is broken with these characters or their respective arcs.
That being said, the cast portraying those characters is about as solid as one could hope for, at least on paper. As our bank-robbing protagonist, Chiwetel Ejiofor does his damnedest to elevate the material he’s been given, but the real thief here is Woody Harrelson, who steals every scene he’s in (and seems to have a great time doing it). Aaron Paul and Norman Reedus make a pretty game attempt at portraying a brotherly bond, but their glaring physical dissimilarities and limited screen time hamper their efforts. Possibly the best performance in the film is delivered in a single scene by Michael Kenneth Williams (The Wire’s Omar) as transgender prostitute and informant Sweet Pea. But all these valiant attempts at thespianism aside, the cast also has a couple of notable weak links that compromise its ability to make up for the script’s shortcomings in the story department. Kate Winslet, while almost unrecognizable as a Russian Jewish mafiosa, never quite manages to bring any gravitas or menace to the role, mostly just looking bored with her circumstances. Casey Affleck’s mullet is more believable than his poorly affected Southern drawl. And Atlanta, which I had hoped would have an onscreen presence as compelling as any of the actors, is instead relegated to bland shaky-cam shots of anonymous inner-city war zones, with the exception of a few recognizable landmarks such as Stone Mountain and the Crazy Horse Gentleman’s Club. Even the legendary Clermont Lounge has been disappointingly sanitized almost beyond recognition.
What Triple 9 lacks in plotting and character development, it attempts to remedy with big action set-pieces, and it mostly succeeds. Two deftly directed heist scenes and some nice chase work go a long way toward overshadowing the film’s shortcomings, but ultimately its lack of purpose proves to be its undoing. A second-act scene involving Ejiofor’s son with Winslet’s sister (Gal Gadot) left me wishing the filmmakers had followed the kid instead, as the story of a black Russian Jewish kid with a bank-robbing dad navigating the Fulton County school system sounds vastly more interesting than what’s actually on display in Triple 9. With so many characters and narrative convolutions to juggle, the film fails to coalesce around any central premise or empathetic focal point. But to quote the classic SCTV bit The Film Farm Report, stuff gets “blowed up real good,” and for those going in with realistic expectations in that regard, Triple 9 does not disappoint. Rated R for strong violence and language throughout, drug use and some nudity.