Walking home once, I stopped in my tracks and watched dozens of cop cars and emergency vehicles come racing down the streets; sirens ablaze. In New York City, and certainly in my neighborhood, siren sounds aren’t a rarity. However, what stopped me that day was the sheer number of cars zooming to their destination. The experience was so jarring, that it shocked me into a standstill.
Evidently, in many counties when a cop is shot, the code ‘999’ is called in; the results are what I witnessed on that fateful day. Fellow cops were racing to help their distressed comrade. John Hillcoat’s fast-paced heist film ‘Triple 9” gave me that exact feeling. It is a film that not only encompasses the anticipation of looking at something exciting, but also (at times) captures that paralyzing state of being left in the dust. Helmed by a powerhouse ensemble which includes, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Casey Affleck, Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus, Woody Harrelson, and Kate Winslet, “Triple 9” is one of those rare thrillers that actually keeps you guessing until its gory end.
Set in Atlanta, Georgia, Hillcoat turned away from the city’s typically seen charms, and instead forces the audience to swallow its most gritty and prickly backdrops. ‘Triple 9’ follows a rag-tag group of criminals, led by Ejiofor’s Michael Atwood. Atwood plays a weary former ops solider, who finds himself under the beck and call of the Russian-Israeli mob, which is led by Winslet’s conniving and ruthless Irina Vaslov. Michael’s group includes two dirty cops, Marcus Belmont (played by Anthony Mackie), Jorge Rodriguez (played by a masterful Clifton Collins Jr.), as well as the Welch brothers, Gabe (Aaron Paul) and Russell (Norman Reedus), who is also Michael’s best friend.
With such a robust cast, and a complex but often-muddled narrative, it took some time for me to get my bearings with what was actually occurring onscreen. At times, I felt as if I were watching two different films. As Michael and his partners try to pull off one last heist for Irina, we also get to know Detective Belmont’s (Mackie) new partner, Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), who’s a little too “green” for his own good. We also learn about his uncle/mentor Jeffrey Allen, a true crimes investigator and drunk, played to perfection by Woody Harrelson. Obviously, these two worlds don’t stay separate for long, especially when the heist crew decides they need to pull a ‘999’ in order to complete their final task and walk away from Irina and the Russian mob for good.
At first the film seems to meander, as is typical of any decent 21st century thriller. It opens with the crew making their getaway from their initial job. As it continues, bodies start piling up, and heads literally roll, but then the surprises start coming. First with a cameo from Michael K. Williams, that pays homage to his infamous Omar Little in HBO’s “The Wire”, and then, as the story continues, Hillcoat lures the audience in, only to shift gears on us at the last possible second. This really helps distract from the narrative, which often feels both drawn out and not entirely reasonable.
Along with the film’s brazen suspense and violence, the performances here are what truly set this piece apart, for better or for worse. While Winslet usually delivers fine performances, her accent in ‘Triple 9’ was often cringe-worthy. Irina is mostly a shell of a stereotypical villain, and unfortunately we don’t get to know much more about her. Likewise, Mackie’s Marcus, though obviously conflicted, never gets the opportunity to stretch out and explore his motivations beyond a superficial level. Fans of “The Walking Dead” will be disappointed to know that Norman Reedus’ talent was wasted in his brief role, though Aaron Paul does well as the drugged out, ex-cop Gabe.
“Triple 9” comes together because of Ejiofor, Collins Jr., Affleck and Harrelson’s performances. Ejiofor used everything in his arsenal to make Michael compelling, especially when it comes to his role as a father, the soul reason for his entrapment in Irina’s web. Affleck and Harrelson are also great as always; both actors have this compelling disposition that forces you to resonate with their characters no matter how different their experiences may be from your own. And yet, the real screen stealer in “Triple 9” is Clifton Collins Jr., as the quietly diabolical, dirty detective Rodriguez. He is a reason why this film will keep you glued to your seat.
“Triple 9” hit theaters Friday, February 26, 2016
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami