Directed by John Hillcoat
Opens February 26
At one point in Triple 9, a gang of men—two corrupt cops plus two outright criminals equals a four-man robbery crew, doing jobs for the Russian mob—meets up at a steam bath to discuss their plans. I’m thinking: guys, you’re already in a John Hillcoat movie; isn’t going someplace to sweat a little redundant? The Australian director has in the past favored westerns, of sorts, set in the Outback (The Proposition), the Depression (Lawless) and the post-apocalypse (his adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road). No matter where his characters hang out, sweat and grime tend to follow. Triple 9 is his least western and least grimy feature since The Proposition put him on the beyond-Australia map, and yet it’s still (a.) the kind of cop movie that could be compared to a western and (b.) the kind of movie where most of the characters probably have dirt under their fingernails. Hillcoat manages to make Atlanta, a popular stand-in for all manner of cities these days, look almost post-apocalyptic while playing itself.
The four-man crew hitting the sauna and also a bank in the movie’s opening scene includes Anthony Mackie and Clifton Collins Jr. (the cops) alongside Aaron Paul and Chiwetel Ejiofor (the non-cops, although they have non-criminal backgrounds). That’s just a third of Triple 9’s crazy stacked cast; its ensemble features about a dozen name actors, also including Kate Winslet (initially hard to recognize, playing a hardened mob boss), Woody Harrelson (rolling around lines like “Be careful what you InstaGoogleTweetFace” somewhere inside his cheek, as per late-period usual), soon-to-be Wonder Woman Gal Gadot and, oh yeah, Casey Affleck, who is kinda-sorta the movie’s main character. There’s a Training Day-ish thing going on where vaguely square, laconic newbie Affleck is placed with streetwise, unpredictable Anthony Mackie. Only the movie utilizes a bold gambit of not even introducing Affleck until what feels like about 20 minutes in, and never fully settling into his point of view. He’s such an outsider that he can’t always make headway into his own leading role.
Maybe Affleck just seems like the main character because he carries a quiet power in his muted southern drawl, in contrast to the others’ sweaty bluster. The crew is supposed to be doing a final job for the Winslet character when the movie opens, but she ropes them into another one, which may necessitate a distraction by way of “triple nine”—police code for an officer down, which will draw all area cops away from whatever the robbers get up to. Affleck, meanwhile, tries to work with Mackie to combat some grisly gang violence, conjuring the briefest memories of Gone Baby Gone.
It’s not just the younger Affleck brings to mind the older Affleck’s Boston crime pictures, especially The Town. Hillcoat generally coats his genre movies with a sweaty sheen of respectability—but like Affleck, he falls a little short of Michael Mann-style visual poetry, lacking an eye for arresting action. The opening bank job, for example, is gripping enough (once Hillcoat pushes past the introduction: contextless dialogue taking place in dim lighting!) but only really finds an arresting image at the tail end, when red-dye smoke from a bag of cash overtakes the inside of a getaway van, necessitating a highway pile-up. Triple 9 lands somewhere between Antoine Fuqua and high-end Tony Scott—like if one of those pulp-programmer directors decided he was making something more expansive or novelistic.
That’s not to say the scope of Triple 9 is all that impressive. Unlike Affleck’s Boston movies, there isn’t much sense of place or emotion underneath the surface dramatics. The actors give it their best shot playing characters who, we come to realize, may not be all that smart, savvy, or, really, especially interesting (outside of being played by Ejiofor, Mackie, Affleck, and Winslet; we could all use that much of a leg up, interest-wise). The plot doesn’t exactly tighten around any of its characters; when Aaron Paul, for example, suffers a personal loss early on, grief knocks him into a stupor immediately, and the complication feels perfunctory. The sloppiness of the cops-and-robbers games starts to feel pointless, even as it remains generally compelling. Everyone in Triple 9 ultimately feels a bit like a supporting character—even the filmmakers. It’s entertaining enough, but whose movie is this?