TRIPLE 9 Review

There is as much a vibrancy to Triple 9 as there is a subdued sense of dread. It's not hard to tell something bad or suspicious is lurking around every corner in this Atlanta-set cop drama from director John Hillcoat (The Road, Lawless, The Proposition) and yet, at the same time, you can't help but to want to turn those corners in anticipation of seeing the story develop. First time feature writer Matt Cook gives us a rather complex plot to comprehend, but that his script dives into the key characters head first and we come to know them and their circumstances almost immediately gives us reason to invest and want to understand these present complexities. From moment one, where we see a four man team robbing a bank with The Walking Dead's Norman Reedus serving as the lookout in an inconspicuous vehicle, I was into the dirty, grimy narrative that Hillcoat and Cook would be weaving to presumably get at bigger themes and larger statements about race, justice, and the gray lines that divide honor and disdain. The film accomplishes as much by not just being about bank robbers and corrupt police officers, but rather Triple 9 utilizes the unaccounted for details of emotion and other human elements to disturb the strict proceedings some, if not most, of its characters attempt to operate within. There is no room for emotions or a softened mental state within the Atlanta police department, especially for detectives. We see this in the toll that has clearly been taken on Woody Harrelson's character, Jeffrey Allen, while there is certainly no room for as much under the rule of Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet) a Russian Jew looking to free her powerful husband with the help of a few hired hands. Through each of these characters Cook enlists some type of inherent emotional attachment though, making things never as clear cut as the puppet masters would like them to be. While this may not be to the characters advantage though, it makes things all the more savory for the audience member waiting to see what decisions will be made and how such decisions will reverberate through to other aspects of the story. That said, Triple 9 is not a perfect film (far from it, really), but more times than not I was on the edge of my seat anxious to see where the film and more importantly, its characters, would take me.

Detective Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson) consults his nephew Chris (Casey Affleck) about his first day on the job.
The original five man crew consists of leader Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor), his partner Russell Welch (Reedus), Russell's brother Gabe (Aaron Paul), Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie), and Franco Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr.). The bank robbery is done under the expectation of getting paid handsomely by Winslet's Vlaslov, so when Atwood and his crew deliver the safety deposit box Vlaslov desires and are not compensated for their work, but instead prompted to complete a second job it is understandable why tensions are high. Measures are taken by Vlaslov to ensure that Atwood and his team complete the second robbery, but in order to do so they need a fair amount of time without police interruption. Luckily, they have insight in the form of Marcus and Franco who just so happen to be detectives with the Atlanta PD. Their suggestion is to pull what is called a triple nine or officer down. This typically draws the attention of all available units leaving any other call in the area out of reach. Both Marcus and Franco commit to the idea and the responsibility of designating an officer to take the fall in order to accomplish their task and receive payment from Vlaslov. Enter transfer Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), nephew of Harrelson's character, a stoic presence who is partnered with Mackie's Marcus in order to introduce him to the streets of the ATL. Naturally, Chris has a pretty wife (Teresa Palmer) and son at home and thus it is easy to see where this is going, but as those unaccounted for factors of emotion, including compassion, creep in it becomes more difficult for everyone on the team to stick to their original guns. Add to all of this the layer that Atwood has a son with Vlaslov's sister, Elena (Gal Gadot), that Gabe becomes increasingly more dependent on alcohol and hookers (to whom he tells everything), that Harrelson takes advantage of any illegal substance he comes in contact with on top of his clear alcohol addiction, and that Marcus comes to respect and even befriend Chris and you're inevitably going to reach a boiling point of conflicted and complicated dynamics that Cook knows how to set up and stir, but isn't particularly skilled in serving.

Of course, beyond the inviting heist/corrupt cop narrative the thing that is most outstanding about the film is its stellar cast. When a group of such diverse yet skilled talent is collected the fear is that there won't be enough good material to go around and that deserving players will get shortchanged. This of course comes into play here given Hillcoat enlists attractive talent in even minor roles, but for the most part there is enough to go around in terms of material even if the development or arcs of every character don't always get enough time. Ejiofor and Affleck more or less play the leads on the two opposing sides of the morality scale with their objectives being somewhat similar in that both of them are looking for new beginnings or fresh starts. While both are taking measures to ensure a new path is not far ahead of them they both encounter tests of sorts to somewhat initiate them into these new lives. For Affleck, it is coming from a role that apparently didn't experience anywhere near the crime that Atlanta promises and acclimating to that environment while ultimately seeming to be the best choice for his family life at the moment. On the other side of things Ejiofor is in the "one last job" rut that will deliver him enough money to move away from Vlaslov's influence with hopes of still maintaining a connection with his son whom Vlaslov seems to control given she is Elena's older, domineering sister. It would have been nice to see more of Gadot as it seems her role is only in existence so that Ejiofor and Vlaslov might have a more personal connection, but when she is on screen it is clear she has a commanding presence.

On the other hand, there could seemingly be a whole series based around Harrelson's Allen and how he's become dependent on drugs and alcohol as what is assumed to be nothing more than a need for a calming escape given his clear commitment to the job. While Harrelson's character does bad things he is undoubtedly a good guy who has the best interests of his family, his colleagues, and his city at heart as he goes about his investigation. While Collins Jr, Paul, and especially Reedus only get a few scenes to develop their characters perspectives it is Mackie and Winslet who get the most scenery to chew. Winslet is reliable in that she's always in tune with the tone of her film and she is appealingly intimidating and indifferent here whereas Mackie plays off Affleck in his best scenes that display the core complexities of the conflict at hand. It becomes up to Mackie's character to convey the essence of what it seems Cook wanted to discuss with the film and because of that embodiment we are severely impacted by how things play out. Sure, we've seen these types of people and even these types of situations on screen before, but Triple 9 is so in tune with what it is and what it wants to be that there is no shortage of attitude or grit and that kind of awareness combined with the A-list cast performing the hell out of the material makes the journey that much more compelling. In short, all of us operate in the gray area and in letting certain extremes of such an uncertain area corrupt you can only lead to one of two unattractive outcomes. It's all about balance, but the characters Cook zeroes in on, while seeming to understand this concept, aren't sure how to carry such balance out in their actual lives.  

Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet) has Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wrapped around her finger.
That said, the film feels effortlessly paced at five minutes short of two hours even if it doesn't necessarily feel complete. My major complaint with the film is that there is so much going on it doesn't give every storyline the justice it deserves. Winslet is a classy, interesting villain, but other than her accent and tendency to sit in dimly lit rooms we're not sure exactly what makes so many men bow to her needs. This and the fact her (spoiler) ultimate demise is completely lame make it feel as if the film is in a hurry to usher her out of the picture so that it might wrap up the other four arcs it has going. Furthermore, the film ends abruptly with no sign of what the outcome for a major character might have been. There is letting the audience draw their own conclusions and then there is cutting to black in the middle of a scene and the latter is what Triple 9. It's curious to say the least, but there is at least some hint of where everyone involved will end up if not a more well-rounded idea of how everyone involved will fall into their place. While the overcrowding issue becomes bigger and bigger as the film goes on and the third act is especially scattershot, the film excels most when it focuses in on the profession the majority of our characters hold. The opening bank scene is a well-executed slice of precision with a fair amount of tension that introduces Hillcoat's preference for the blood red color scheme that runs throughout. As if signifying the vicious cycle of such life choices or the fiery ashes from which Winslet's character seems to think she will always rise. The imagery is especially memorable in this sequence and sets a very repulsive yet aesthetically inviting look for the rest of the movie. A scene in the middle of the film where Affleck and Mackie lead a team into an apartment complex is even more tension-filled and really takes the audience through the procedure such professionals have to follow. Its great filmmaking and a standout scene that grabs you in the moment while simultaneously moving the relationship between Chris and Marcus forward. Even as the story kind of falls apart the momentum and tension never do as the climactic scene captures the pure chaos of the moment when all hell finally breaks loose. Say what you will, and most will say Triple 9 retreads too much familiar ground with one too many storylines to be effective, but there is too much to like to not dig what Hillcoat has delivered.

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