Triple 9 is a pretty conventional action heist thriller, elevated by an impressive cast and some really stylishly directed sequences, but which at the same time for all its strengths is unlikely to trouble anyone’s list of top ten favourite films of the year.
The story centres on a group of ex-military and disgraced former and serving cops who begin by staging a successful bank robbery in Georgia, Atlanta. Afterwards they are double-crossed by their Russian Mafia paymasters and forced to carry out a second, far more difficult raid on a Federal storage facility. To pull this off they need a decoy event that will draw the city’s entire police force to the other side of town, and the only thing that will work is a ‘triple 9’ – the police call sign for the murder of a cop.
The cop they pick on is Detective Chris Allen (Casey Affleck) who is the nominal hero of the movie, although in truth there are no genuinely likeable characters in the film. The prevailing motto seems to be that there is no honour among thieves or indeed between fellow cops, and that everyone will betray and try to kill everyone else – with the exception of Allen who as the ‘innocent’ of the piece. He is more bystander and spectator to whom things happen rather than someone with any agency or actual effect on what’s going on around him.
Instead the most interesting character and main protagonist is Michael Atwood played by Chiwetel Ejiofor: he’s ruthless and irredeemable, but the reasons for his actions are clearly marked out in a script from Matt Cook that tries hard and mostly succeeds in bringing depth and dimensions to all of its large ensemble cast that includes Norman Reedus, Aaron Paul, Anthony Mackie and Clifton Collins, Jr. as Atwood’s crew. Woody Harrelson is the detective investigating the bank robbery (and also coincidentally Chris’ uncle) while Kate Winslet is magnificent in a massively cast-against-type as Russian Mafia boss Irina Vlaslov, with Gal Gadot as her sister who is coincidentally the mother of Atwood’s son Felix – just one of the holds that Irina has over Atwood that forces him into undertaking the second heist.
The film’s best sequences are without question the action-centric ones: the initial bank job is a standout, then a mid-film extended drug bust by the police in a gang-dominated urban housing development, and then the final half hour detailing the ‘triple 9’, the second raid and its fall-out. The viewer will be satisfyingly on the edge of their seat for these parts, just as they should be.
The first heist is evocative of the main action sequence of Heat, but where Michael Mann’s film was set against a cool sense of style and panache the prevailing mise-en-scène in Triple 9 is bursting with the dirt, sweat, grunge and ugliness of both locale and character. It’s far more realistic in tone than Mann’s fantasy crime epics, but at the same time this is emphatically not a world you’d want to have to live in: just by watching the film you end up feeling rather sticky and sleazy. The cops here are presented as just one more corrupt violent gang on the street, and on the losing side at that, and when Chris naively expresses a hope that he will be able to do some good on the street in his job, his uncle admonishes him and tells him it’s just about getting through the day and surviving long enough to go home at the end of the shift.
Ultimately the film comes down to whether Atwood will get away with the second heist, and who will be left standing at the end of it all. The film signals early on that this is going to be a deadly affair with the first main star being offed within the initial 20 minutes. Even with the writing and casting managing to bring the cast to life better than most films of this type, there’s still a problem with the quick rate of dispatch which ends up leaving everyone feeling like canon fodder.
That’s especially the case when everyone is so hard to like. Even Chris is thoroughly caught up in the testosterone-soaked world of psychologically damaged, pumped-up alpha males snapping and snarling at each other. It’s probably why Irina – ironically the one character in the film with actual power, but who wields it in a very different fashion complete with high heels – stands out so vividly and works so well in Winslet’s expert hands.
Normally this is the kind of film I’d settle for on a cheap DVD, but at the last minute I picked up the Blu-ray version instead. And actually this was a surprising good move: a lot of the film is very dark and other parts are soaked in vivid colour washes, so the high definition helps hold the visual details and stop the picture from becoming overloaded. Naturally the Blu-ray also does a top job on picking out the huge amount of texture to be found in the daylight of the street-level slums that the criminals, cops and gangsters inhabit.
While the soundtrack does great work with the shoot-outs, I have to admit that I did struggle to make out a lot of the dialogue where clarity seemed to have been sacrificed in the mix and in the low-growled performances. Arguably it’s not the sort of film you need to follow the script too closely anyway, but I found myself irritated by just how much of it I was unable to make out without rewinding and listening for a second time. In the end I settled on using subtitles for the dialogue-heavy scenes.
Extras-wise there’s very little to write home about: four short deleted scenes, a perfunctory three minute featurette on the film’s story and cast, and a similar-length piece on the efforts for authenticity made by director John Hillcoat.
All in all it’s a film well worth seeing for any fans of crime/action films, and the cast and direction elevate it well out of the normal B-movie straight-to-DVD niche that this sort of thing would ordinarily have found itself populating. It might not be world-changing, but it’s an effectively tense and gripping movie that takes you into a convincingly disturbing and nasty world of violence and treachery that will be something of a treat for those with the stomach for it.
Rating: ★ ★ ★
Triple 9 was released in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray on 27 June 2016.