In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s not a great time for movies for grown-ups. If you like talking animals, or superheroes, or dinosaurs, or Disney reboots, or Vin Diesel, Hollywood is catering to you pretty well — but the studios are increasingly reluctant to greenlight anything that doesn’t have four-quadrant, franchise appeal, with more adult fare increasingly moving over to television, unless they have Leonardo DiCaprio or have a good chance at an Oscar.
For those of us who like a little more variety in our moviegoing, it’s a bleak time. But then, every so often, something like “Triple 9” comes along: a healthily budgeted wide release with a cop-drama/heist-movie set-up and plenty of gritty violence, from a well-respected director (Aussie helmer John Hillcoat of “The Proposition,” “The Road” and “Lawless”), and with a cast full of awards-laden big names from film and TV. It has a whole ton of promise — but in its finished product, it might be more of a risk to the continuation of grown-up films on screen than a boon.
Michael Belmont (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is an ex-special forces type who, with army comrade Russell (Norman Reedus), Russell’s ex-cop brother Gabe (Aaron Paul), and two serving cops, Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Jorge (Clifton Collins Jr.), have a sideline in bank robberies. The jobs are being pulled at the behest of Russian/Israeli mobstress Irina (Kate Winslet, with one of the biggest hairdos in mob-boss history), whose sister Elena (Gal Gadot) is Michael’s ex-girlfriend and the mother of his son.
They’ve just pulled off a (mostly) successful heist, but Irina welches on her deal and forces them to pull another, even more difficult job. The only way, they swiftly realize, they can buy enough time to get away clean is by causing a Triple 9 — the police callsign for an officer down, at which point the city’s entire law enforcement will swarm on the scene of the shooting, causing the perfect diversion. And their chosen victim? Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), Marcus’ green new partner, and coincidentally the nephew of the cop investigating the earlier robbery (Woody Harrelson).
It’s a familiar but usually juicy mixture of good cops, corrupt cops, military-grade weaponry, tattooed Hispanic gang members, the Russian mob, moral conflict and ultraviolence. Someone like David Ayer has essentially built his entire career on this. Indeed, were it not for the film being set in Atlanta rather than Los Angeles (something which screams "tax breaks!" rather than a storytelling choice, unfortunately), you could squint and think the movie from the same guy who brought us “Training Day,” “Street Kings” and “End Of Watch.”
That’s not quite fair: Hillcoat has a gentler sense of pacing (mostly to the film’s benefit, which is absorbing rather than frantic), a keener eye and a muscular sense of action, with every set piece here really crackling. DP Nicholas Karakatsanis (“Bullhead,” “The Drop”) in particular does some fine work, mixing gritty street-level photography with some popping colors (red anti-theft dust and pink fingerprinting powder are dotted around the film to striking effect). And for a time, the film’s somewhat unconventional structure, which keeps ostensible hero Affleck to the margins for much of the running time, keeps you involved and wondering where Matt Cook’s screenplay is going.
The answer, unfortunately, is "nowhere particularly interesting" — or more accurately, "nowhere you haven’t seen before." Beyond the titular hook, there’s little here that you wouldn’t get from putting “Heat,” “The Departed” and half-a-dozen episodes of “The Shield” in a blender. As well-handled as the set pieces are, the connective tissue doesn’t pull you along, and then collapses completely in a messy, unsatisfying final act.
But surely that killer cast, positively laden down with Oscar and Emmy nominations, are worth the price of admission? If the film remains watchable most of the way through, it’s because of them: Most of the ensemble wouldn’t be capable of giving a bad performance if you put a gun to their head. But the trouble is, none of them are really given the material to enable them to reach higher than "watchable."
Anthony Mackie probably fares best: The actor brings along his usual charisma, but manages to build a thinly drawn character into an actual person, in part because the script gives him inner conflict to play with. Chiwetel Ejiofor is good, but I’m one of his biggest fans, and I’d be hard pressed to say he’s anything more than that. Affleck is committed, but the character is essentially just Detective Hero Cop, and is weirdly disconnected from the story for most of it (though he at least fares better than Teresa Palmer as Detective Hero Cop Wife, a barely sketched out part for the talented actress). Winslet underplays what could have been a scenery-chewing mob boss role, but you actually end up wishing that she’d swung for the fences and delivered a more memorable turn.
And everyone else is essentially playing themselves. Clifton Collins Jr. pops up in the exact role that he normally plays. Aaron Paul gets a sweatier variation on Jesse from “Breaking Bad” (though he does fare better than in some of his other big-screen outings since the series wrapped up). The only way Woody Harrelson could be playing more of a Woody Harrelson role is if the character was actually named Woody Harrelson, and every one of his lines was “Woody Harrelson.” The lone surprise comes from Michael K. Williams in a one-scene cameo, but we won’t spoil that.
Perhaps there’s a longer cut out there where all these people got fleshed out. And perhaps that cut led to a film that felt like it was actually about something. Instead, we get empty genre tropes going through motions without much of a theme to show for it. For hardcore fans of the cop-movie genre starved for material, maybe that’ll be enough. The rest of us will likely leave the movie feeling like an opportunity was missed somewhere. [C]
"Triple 9" opens in the U.K. on February 19th, and in the U.S. on February 26th.