You might think there’s something wrong with Triple 9, considering how its low-profile release – late February, muted ads, minimal buzz – seems at odds with its high-wattage cast: Casey Affleck, Kate Winslet, Chiwitel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Woody Harrelson, Aaron Paul, Clifton Collins Jr., Michael K. Williams, Gal Gadot, Norman Reedus. But its relatively quiet unveiling says less about the movie itself and more about how distributors aren’t sure what the hell to do with a B-movie anymore; what we’re looking at here is a solid, sturdy little crime picture, in which a deep bench of fine actors have a great time playing good guys and bad guys (and variations between), while their director bangs out as many high-tension set pieces as he can make excuses for.
That director is John Hillcoat, who’s made something of a specialty of revisiting traditional genres and giving them his specific, nasty little kick. He broke through with a frontier Western (2005’s gritty, hard-nosed The Proposition), followed that up with a post-Apocalyptic wasteland tale (his 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road), and last tried his hand at a bootleg-era gangster story (2012’s underrated Lawless). This is his first film set in an explicitly contemporary timeframe, though this urban streetscape is not unlike the grim settings he’s dwelled in before. He’s working in two strains of crime film: the urban heist picture and the dirty cop movie, something of a Michael Mann-Sidney Lumet hybrid. There is, unsurprisingly, a bit of inherent familiarity. But if the story is old hat and the characters are stock, you gotta give him this – Hillcoat knows how to squeeze a sequence like a vice.
He opens with an extended, first-rate robbery scene, in which a crew of five pros smash and grab their way to a mysterious safe-deposit box, finding the waving of their weapons to be less effective than showing the bank manager their pictures of his home and family. But one of the guys, a rookie, grabs a few stacks of lay-around cash, and the dye packs explode in the getaway van, leading to an ugly, nasty, clumsy series of fender-benders and shoot-outs in the Atlanta streets. The whole thing looks an awful lot like Mann’s Heat, sure. But Hillcoat’s hard, muscular style is different from Mann’s, and the entire sequence is ferocious, up to and including its last reveal, when two members of that crew change into their work clothes and strap on their badges.
The twisty tale that follows that electrifying opening never quite lives up to it, but that’s okay. It’s a fairly convoluted bit of one-last-score/Russian mafia/good-cop-trying-to-make-a-difference business, in which crew head Ejiofor is blackmailed by mob boss Winslet (yes, and she’s wonderful) into breaking into a seemingly impenetrable DHS building if he ever wants to see his son again. The only way Ejiofor’s guys figure they can keep the (other) cops at bay for that long is if all are responding to the nuclear button of a “999” – an officer shot. And wouldn’t ya know it, cop/crook Anthony Mackie has a new partner (Casey Affleck) who he wouldn’t mind getting rid of. And then it turns a few more times; frankly, there’s enough plot here for a ten-episode HBO series, so its 115 minutes feel both heavy and rushed.
And it’s all basically nonsense anyway, because you don’t see a movie like Triple 9 for narrative coherence anymore than you would a ‘40s gangster movie or a ‘50s heist picture; you’re there for the performances, and the moments where they spark off each other. No one’s exactly breaking their mold here, but they’re all doing entertaining variations: tough-guy Mackie gets a good, bristling tension going with laid-back, gum-chewing Affleck, Aaron Paul dives headlong into a pit of drunken despair following the death of his brother (I hope whoever thought to cast him and Norman Reedus as siblings got a bonus), Ejiofor finds a note of steely intensity and holds it, Winslet plays tough and spouts frequently hilarious borderline-Walken non-sequiturs (“I don’t like [the sea] myself, there’s something idiotic about it”). And then there’s Woody Harrelson, first seen smoking a joint (natch), who plays most of his scenes like he’s auditioning for a third Bad Lieutenant.
Does it all work? Not by a long shot. Winslet aside, the story’s female characters are a parade of thinly-drawn wives and girlfriends; several players are wasted in tiny roles, chief among them Michael K. Williams as a ‘90s-era trans sex worker; it’s set in Atlanta, and some of the Southern accents are dodgy at best; and the way in which screenwriter Matt Cook hides the details of the actual 999 plan leaves the audience a bit untethered, not sure if/when it’s going right/wrong.
For that matter, Hillcoat can’t always sustain the momentum, and overcome the overall familiarity, of the scenes that bridge his highlights. But seriously, what highlights. Triple 9 isn’t a must-see movie; you won’t run right out to preach its gospel to your friends, and it’s not going to turn up on a lot of year-end lists, if anyone even remembers it past summer. But while it’s onscreen, it works up a pretty good rolling boil.
Triple 9 is out Friday.