Call in a 999 on this picture: Talented cast can’t save derivative crime story
If you’re a fan of dark, atmospheric, incomprehensible crime thrillers, then wow, is today ever your lucky day. With Triple 9, Australian director John Hillcoat (The Road; Lawless) and first-time feature film screenwriter Matt Cook have crafted one of the darkest, moodiest, and totally nonsensical crime dramas in recent memory. As an added bonus, the film boasts a terrific cast, although they are mostly wasted as they gamely try to make their way through this puzzling, often dull, inchoate picture.
Hillcoat and Cook appear here to have been inspired by everything from Heat and Reservoir Dogs to Point Break and True Detective (the bad second season, not the good first season). If you liked all of those, then, you’ll be delighted at finding pieces of them sprinkled liberally throughout this film. Heist movie meets mob picture here, as a ragtag team of corrupt cops and ex-military bad asses are blackmailed by the Russian mob into stealing Something Important from Somewhere Super Important for Reasons We Don’t Care About.
Of course, as tends to happen in stories like these, there are crosses and double crosses, questionable motives, and shifting and secret alliances. Our main hero, though, is young “I want to make a difference” Atlanta police officer Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), recently partnered with Anthony Mackie’s more seasoned – and not exactly upstanding – Marcus. Marcus is part of a group that is coerced (to put it mildly) into pulling off one last robbery for the Russian mob – and, to do so, they need a distraction to keep the cops away from their location long enough to get the goods. Thus the film’s title, which is police code for “officer down.” If they can have an officer killed, the gang figures, all of Atlanta law enforcement will converge on that crime scene, leaving our anti-heroes free to easily complete their heist. How that plan plays out comprises the bulk of the film, with mixed results.
Results are mixed primarily because of a few basic problems, the most pressing of which is the literal darkness of the film (as alluded to in the first paragraph – you probably thought I meant psychologically dark, but no – cinematically, the picture is practically black in many scenes). The grainy darkness of almost every scene makes it very difficult to decipher what is happening where and to whom, which leads us to the picture’s second major problem: there are too many characters, many of whom look alike. Besides Mackie and Affleck, we also have Chiwetel Ejiofor, Clifton Collins, Jr., Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus, and Woody Harrelson in major roles. Their shadowy conversations are not only hard to see half the time, but also hard to follow, since we are often confused about who is talking about which other character.
In one of the few female roles, Kate Winslet, who did nice work in Steve Jobs with a Polish accent, here pushes her linguistic talents to the extreme, going super broad with a Russian accent as the Russian mob wife and heavyweight Irina. She ends up sounding like arch villainess Natasha from Rocky and Bullwinkle. Her shellacked hair and garish make up don’t help; what could have been a unique and multi-faceted character unfortunately ends up falling into the realm of caricature. Subtlety apparently isn’t Hillcoat’s strong suit.
Indeed, this is the kind of movie in which the hitman writes down the exact time and location of his hit on a scrap of paper and keeps it in his wallet, just in case he forgets where to go, which, I guess, happens to hitmen? Who knew. Given the guy’s line of work, you’d think he might want to consider learning some memory tricks. Instead, as to be expected, this super easy-to-find and blatant give-away is what helps the hero figure out who The Bad Guy is.
Hillcoat does at least give us some decent thrills with a fairly exciting car chase scene early in the picture, as well as a pulse-pounding raid on a suspected criminal’s house, in which we can acutely feel the fear of the cops involved. Affleck, Ejiofor, Mackie, and especially Harrelson, who is a master of the flawed-cop role, all turn in competent performances, so it’s a shame they weren’t given better material. Unless you’re a huge fan of any of these actors or the genre itself, skip this one, and pop Heat in the DVD player instead.
Triple 9 opens today at Bay Area theaters.