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‘Triple 9’ Reviews: John Hillcoat’s ‘Pure Pulp’ Heist Movie is ‘The Anti-Heat’

'Triple 9' Reviews: John Hillcoat's 'Pure Pulp' Heist Movie is 'The Anti-Heat'

You’d hardly know it from the trailers for John Hillcoat’s hypermasculine heist thriller “Triple 9,” but according to the first reviews, one of the movie’s tastiest performances — amid turns from a powerhouse cast that includes Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Anthony Mackie, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Aaron Paul — comes from Kate Winslet, who plays a Russian mob boss. (We’ll let that sink in a moment: Kate Winslet plays a Russian mob boss.) That alone might serve to distinguish the movie from Michael Mann’s “Heat,” to which many critics compare it — sometimes approvingly, sometimes emphatically not. (One calls it “the anti-‘Heat,'” but in a good way.) To judge from the reviews, there’s nothing particularly distinctive about Matt Cook’s long-Black List-ed script, which involves crooked police officers calling in the titular “officer down” incident to draw their comrades away from a planned heist, which then goes very, bloodily, wrong. But Hillcoat (“Lawless,” “The Proposition”) imbues the movie with what Variety’s Justin Chang calls “a seething miasma of masculine aggression”; it’s a morbid mood piece masquerading as an action movie. Hillcoat’s past movies have often had a pulpy core, but they’ve sometimes failed to seem aware of it, and critics are divided on whether “Triple 9” knows it’s over the top or simply takes itself too seriously to notice. Is it a “pure pulp thriller,” or “howlingly inane”? U.S. viewers will find out on February 26.

Reviews of “Triple 9”

Justin Chang, Variety

About as far removed as possible from the suave leisure-suit larcenists of an “Ocean’s Eleven” caper, the desperate crooks trying to pull off one last job here are a bunch of corrupt cops and ex-soldiers in Atlanta, navigating a shadowy urban labyrinth with no chance of escape or redemption in sight. Well suited to Hillcoat’s gifts for low-boil suspense and brutal eruptions of violence in close, male-dominated quarters, the film has grit and atmosphere to burn but also a certain narrative sketchiness, as though unable to reconcile its sharp sociological portraiture with the pleasures of a more robustly plotted crime yarn. The occasional imprecision of the storytelling leaves “Triple 9” feeling less like a straightforward thriller than a seething miasma of masculine aggression — not unlike what Hillcoat achieved in “Lawless” and “The Proposition,” the 2005 oater he shot in his native Australia. In those earlier films, the director evinced a fearsome propensity for on-screen gore, and the violence here, while restrained by comparison, has a similarly disquieting impact.

Tom Huddleston, Time Out

Tight, taut and brilliantly structured, “Triple 9” is old-school to the core (flash back 40 years and Gene Hackman would have been a lock for Ejiofor’s embattled anti-hero). The characterisation may be a touch thin: we know from his first scene where Aaron Paul’s sketchy deadbeat is headed. But the moments of tension are powerfully handled – a late-in-the-day heist sequence is nailbiting – and when it all explodes into inevitable violence, we’re right there in the trenches.

Tim Grierson, Screen Daily

A nicely nasty little crime thriller, “Triple 9” gets off on its pitiless tone and ultra-macho characters, but rather than becoming monotonous the film instead develops an hypnotic rhythm and lethal confidence, committed to its steely vibe so completely that even the flaws start to feel like compelling quirks. In “Triple 9’s” early stretches, there’s a worry that the film’s man’s-man milieu will grow tedious, resulting in a thriller in which a group of fine male actors spend the entirety of the movie’s running time attempting to see who’s the biggest tough guy. But although Hillcoat’s previous films have drowned in their brooding, rugged masculinity, here the machismo is complemented by some terrific action sequences and a growingly absorbing storyline that ratchets up the tension while delivering a few well-placed surprises.

Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter

A relentless dirty cop thriller drenched in a sulphurous atmosphere of corruption and dread, “Triple 9” is like a drill that just keeps boring down deeper into your skull for two hours. Director John Hillcoat stages some spectacular crime sequences in ways that seem like announcements that he’s prepared to assume the mantel of big-scale action maestro from Michael Mann, and the stellar cast offers constant stimulation. All the same, the venal duplicity of many of the characters here becomes unrelentingly depressing, as does the eventual feeling of being overwhelmed by pervasive nihilism. Individual scenes are charged with energy, tense confrontations are numerous, and Hillcoat and Cook’s intentions were undoubtedly partly to tease and taunt viewers with uncertainly about where they, and the characters, stand, to figure out who’s got the power and who doesn’t. If it was possible to give a damn about any of them, it would help, but without much investment, one just sits back with increasing detachment and bemused curiosity as to where and on whom the next shoe will drop.

Ryan Lambie, Den of Geek

Unfolding like a delirious compendium of Michael Mann thrillers (“Thief,” “Heat,” “Miami Vice”), “Training Day” and John Carpenter’s classic urban western “Assault on Precinct 13,” “Triple 9” is a pure pulp thriller. But there’s a brilliance in its trashiness; Winslet, with her not-entirely-convincing Wussian accent, is the latest in a growing trend of deliciously evil female gangsters – see also Kristen Scott Thomas in “Only God Forgives,” Cameron Diaz in “The Counselor” and Salma Hayek in “Savages.” Is the 40-something female gangster the new wicked witch of cinema? Perhaps, but Winslet’s clearly having a ball here.

Jamie Graham, Games Radar

It might juggle such familiar elements as cops and robbers, car chases, house raids, street gangs and running gun battles, but it attains a good degree of freshness from its unremitting squalor. So while corrupt-cop movies have been 10 a penny since the ’70s, few have managed to be this repellent, where a row of decapitated heads on the hood of a car or a baby in a roomful of pointed guns hardly merit a second glance.  And despite one superbly orchestrated scene that trades on mobility and cacophony as men with semi-automatic weapons move through traffic against a backdrop of towering skyscrapers, this is the anti-“Heat”: no sheen, no shimmer, no obsessing over highly grandiose themes and precise compositions; just grime and desperation.

Ian Freer, Empire

The interesting world of the film doesn’t get the story it deserves. Out of the excellent opening emerges a familiar plot — a band of corrupt cops plan a heist that requires they kill one of their own to misdirect the fuzz — that throws up seen it-done it notions – the reluctant criminal who has to pull off one more heist, the cop who wants to make a difference – with little in the way of fresh character dynamics to elevate it. Worse, it runs out of momentum in its middle section; just at the point it should ratchet up, it burbles almost to a stop. Despite superficial similarities to”The Town” and “Heat,” this never hits the heights of either.

Oliver Lyttleton, The Playlist

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 down to 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.”

Emma Simonds, Radio Times

Although the story, from screenwriter Matt Cook, twists and turns obligingly as the double-crosses rack up, it never once feels wrenching or surprising. Furthermore, it positively pales in comparison to the greats of the heist sub-genre like “Rififi,” “Reservoir Dogs” and the aforementioned “Heat,” producing few moments to truly treasure. And, if Winslet gives it some welly as she flexes the villainous muscles she showed off in the “Divergent” series, she neglects to bring the requisite steely-eyed menace, wrestling with an accent as alarming as her shoulder-padded suits.

Jamie Neish, Cine-Vue

The lack of characterization is particularly noticeable when a key cast member dies and the implications on his brother aren’t explored in the way they should. That said, the actors who play these figures do the best with the material they’re awarded. Mackie manages to convey some degree of personality as Marcus, while Affleck slots into the good cop persona with ease, his relationship with Harrelson’s detective some of the film’s most human. Unfortunately, Winslet’s performance is too larger than life to bear any meaning. Irina isn’t half as intimidating as she’d like to be and instead resonates as rather silly and ridiculous —  much in the same way as “Triple 9” as a whole.

Alonso Duralde, The Wrap

A howlingly inane movie that somehow managed to collect an impressively A-list cast on its way toward becoming a cop movie that’s not just dumb, it’s disastrous. Future film historians may well wonder whether it was the original version of the screenplay by first-timer Matt Cook, or the promise of working with director John Hillcoat (“The Road”), or favors owed to its producers that attracted so many high-powered performers to “Triple 9,” but the result is an embarrassing police-corruption-Russian-mafia-high-stakes-caper movie that goes from humdrum to downright stupid.

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