A tense heist thriller that conforms rigidly to its genre, John Hillcoat’s Triple 9 is saved from mediocrity by a stellar, all-star cast.
How far would you go to save the lives of those that you love? It’s a fairly straightforward theme that umpteen crime/drama/thriller movies have relied upon over the years, and Triple 9 finds itself resting neatly amongst this bunch. Directed by Aussie filmmaker John Hillcoat (The Road, Lawless), Triple 9 is neither a film that excels within its genre or does it a disservice; it’s merely good, a grimy crime yarn where an excellent ensemble elevates an otherwise conventional narrative you’ve seen before.
The story concerns itself with a troop of career criminals and corrupt cops who are being coerced into pulling off a daring heist for a tyrannical Russian mobster played by Kate Winslet. Lead by ex-special ops soldier Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the group includes the usual collection of character troupes. You’ve got Marcus (Anthony Mackie) the charismatic one; Russell (Norman Reedus), the hot-headed one; Gabe (Aaron Paul), the sympathetic one; and Franco (Clifton Collins Jnr), the faintly psychotic one.
On the other side of the battle we have Casey Affleck and Woody Harrelson as Chris and Jeff, two straight-and-narrow detectives who begin to suspect someone inside their own precinct is behind the audacious robberies. We’re dropped right into the middle of the action and expected to piece it all together without much exposition. This makes the opening 15-20 minutes a bit of jumble but the film soon finds its groove as it shifts Affleck to the fore and we’re introduced to his home life with wife Michelle (Teresa Palmer).
There isn’t a discernable weak link amongst the male cast, but one or two actors do get their chance to shine; Mackie shows considerable range along with Affleck, whilst Paul provides a sympathetic moral compass, even if his character is a little too similar to Jesse from Breaking Bad. Clifton Collins Jnr steals almost every scene he’s in as the seedy and slightly unhinged CSI who is devoid of conscience.
Matt Cook’s screenplay is bookended by two expertly shot heists that are filled to the brim with frenetic action and pulse-pounding tension. Think Ben Affleck’s The Town meets David Ayer’s End of Watch, with a sprinkle of Michael Mann’s Heat mixed in.
Hillcoat borrows heavily from all of the aforementioned films, but this textual familiarity doesn’t detract from Triple 9’s feverish intensity when you’re in the middle of it. Flying bullets and raging testosterone will neatly brush aside any narrative concerns you may have. When combined with Nicolas Karakatsanis’ sombre colour palette and Atticus Ross’ pounding electronic score, Hillcoat’s direction gives Triple 9 a rich visual texture that captures its intended gritty, urban aesthetic.
My biggest issue with the film is that it continues to plod along well after the blood-soaked crescendo has subsided, providing a drawn-out conclusion that removes considerable shine from an otherwise strong finish. A considerable portion of the runtime could’ve been sliced from the third act and the film would’ve been better for it.
Triple 9 also comes up short with regard to its female cast members. Winslet feels woefully miscast as a chain-smoking mobster orchestrating Atlanta’s underworld, whilst a string of lecherous low-angles allow Gal Gadot’s denim shorts to feature more prominently than her face.
The Verdict: 7.5/10
It’s hardly Goodfellas, but Triple 9 is a solid, superficial crime drama that mixes in a healthy dose of murky morality and macho gunplay for good measure.
Triple 9 is in cinemas across Australia now.
This review was originally published over at Hooked on Film, a Perth based website where you can find even more new release movie reviews, features, interviews and insight. Click here to check it out.