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War Games: ‘Triple 9’ and the Shadow of Iraq

War Games: 'Triple 9' and the Shadow of Iraq

In director John Hillcoat’s apocalyptic Atlanta, the Gotham
of the New South, dirty cops tangle with tweakers, tatted-up gang lieutenants,
soused detectives, shady feds, and the Russian mob, to the point that
bloodletting seems a matter of course. Traffic halts for a gunfight as though
it were a routine rush hour nuisance; military-grade stun grenades set off
after a bank heist, each one labeled “distraction device,” elicit no
comment from investigators sweeping the scene. In “Triple 9” (Open
Road, Feb. 26), Hillcoat brings down the hammer on the domestic front’s urban
warfare, only to smash his crime drama to smithereens in the process.

READ MORE: “Listen to Atticus Ross’ Badass ‘Triple 9’ EP Right This Second (EXCLUSIVE)”  

The long, twin shadows of Iraq and Afghanistan loom in the
film’s near distance. Even after former soldier Chris Allen — the terse, slyly funny
Casey Affleck, gnawing on gum as if he’s kicked a bad habit — joins the Atlanta
police department’s gang unit, he streams footage of roadside IEDs exploding in
some far-off desert. His corrupt partner, Marcus (Anthony Mackie), sidelines in
the Russian racket with a former Blackwater operative and occasional bomb maker
(Chiwetel Ejiofor). Latino criminals and S.W.A.T. teams alike carry automatic
weapons designed for invasions, occupations, the maintenance of
“peace.” “Triple 9” is up to its neck in allusions to life
“in theatre,” a potential portrait of the chickens coming home to

But as Marcus and his crew (including Aaron Paul and a
skin-crawling Clifton Collins, Jr.), blackmailed by interim Russian kingpin
Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet), set in motion a ploy to murder Chris — creating a
window in which to break into a nearby Homeland Security storage facility —
Hillcoat and screenwriter Matt Cook neglect to follow this conceit to its
conclusion. Their interest in militarized law enforcement is more tactical than
political, a chance to bring the chaos of the battlefield to the streets of
Dogwood City: a van engulfed in scarlet smoke, flanking maneuvers across
downtown thoroughfares, a severed limb on an office floor.

This approach is not without its dividends. The film’s
finest sequence — pared-down, patient, tense — finds Chris leading a raid on a
murder suspect’s apartment block, describing the operation’s architecture from behind
a bulletproof shield for the officers aligned at his back. Deconstructing the
action with such careful scripting and editing, fitting each subsequent step
into the whole with diagrammatic rigor, it’s not only a brilliant set piece;
it’s also an astute depiction of the blurred border between policework and
combat that’s emerged in the last half century, years in which the space
between our vernacular for domestic issues (War on Poverty, War on Drugs) and
foreign affairs (War on Terror) has diminished to the vanishing point. We have
become, as perhaps even Eisenhower could not have predicted, a nation on a
permanent war footing, at home as well as abroad.

That this interlude proves incidental to the plot of
“Triple 9” begins to suggest its central flaw, which is its inability
to parlay its novel ideas and images into sustained narrative momentum — for so
extraordinarily violent, even gruesome, a film, it ultimately lacks a sense of
conviction. “Triple 9” bludgeons the “dirty cop” trope
nearly to death with lurid red lighting, raspy whispers, and a slew of other
hard-knocks clichés, only to resuscitate it with flashes of self-awareness;
Affleck’s delivery of the line “I’m a badass motherfucker, dude” is
so impishly laconic it feels like a kill shot aimed at a decade or more of increasing
antiheroic excess. When it focuses on Chris and his (mostly) honorable uncle,
Sergeant Detective Jeff Allen — played by the sublime Woody Harrelson as an
addled, wryly comic savant — the film seems a knowing, gleeful jab at the
genre’s worst offenders, including, yes, “True Detective.”

READ MORE: “Point/Counterpoint: Is ‘True Detective’ Season 2 Any Good? Why ‘Bloodline’ Is Better” 

Invariably, though, “Triple 9” slides back into the
dread seriousness of its inauspicious title sequence, a black-and-white,
CCTV-grainy montage of guns, money, Hummers, and death notices. By the time the
film comes to its abrupt conclusion, as if exhausted by its own plot, it
collapses onto the very narrative crutches its most skillful stretches once
appeared ready to discard. Compared to the taut construction of the earlier
raid, the scheme of the title — 999 is code for “officer down” —
unspools in rushed, bruising spurts. As it turns out, “Triple 9” succumbs
to a distraction device of its own invention, using its deft sense of the
mechanics of war to surrender to convention.

“Triple 9”
opens Friday, February 26.

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