For me, there’s always been a distinction between action movies (Die Hard, Lethal Weapon) and crime films (Serpico, Heat). An action movie will sacrifice plausibility to amp up the visceral impact of the film and provide set pieces that often defy common sense while providing their thrills. Suspend your disbelief at the door. A crime film seeks to immerse the viewer in its version of the world of cops and criminals and aspires to plausible plot twists and character-driven narrative. Unfortunately, Triple 9, the new film from John Hillcoat (The Proposition), manages to be neither. While not a bad film, Triple 9 fails to offer the high-octane thrills of an action movie while also lacking the gritty realism of a good crime film. If Michael Mann’s assistant set out to assemble a crime epic from his employer’s left over ideas, the finished product would look a lot like Triple 9.
The plot is as simple as it is absurd. An armed robbery crew with ties to the Russian mob is ordered to hit a local Homeland Security facility to steal some files that will somehow (never explained) free the Russian kingpin for whom they work. The plan is to kill a cop in another area of Atlanta. When the distress call (999) goes out, “every” cop in Atlanta will respond, leaving the Homeland Security facility exposed. Do local cops guard a federal facility? Wouldn’t it be filled with federal agents and military contractors? Do downtown Atlanta cops really respond to a distress signal thirty minutes away? Triple 9 ignores any of these concerns. If you kill him, they will come. And the robbery will succeed.
The locations and plot beats of Triple 9 feel like they have been plucked from a crime film menu. Strip club? Check. Housing projects with menacing people of color? Check. Cops doing drugs? Yep. Thieves double and triple-crossing each other? Uh-huh. A shootout in the streets of a major city? Sorta. Put all of these elements in a pot, bring to a simmer (not really a boil) and you have a crime film. Actually you have a February crime film — one that doesn’t merit a big budget rollout, but should do respectable box office if it’s not facing off against summer tentpoles and Oscar prestige films. As Dave Matthews likes to sing, “And if nothing can be done, we’ll make the best of what’s around.”
The cast is a murderer’s row of talent: Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Woody Harrelson, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Kate Winslet, Gal Gadot and Norman Reedus. But, sometimes the sum of an all-star team is not equal to its individual parts. We’ve seen many of these actors play these same character types in better films. Trade in the badge for a P.I. license, and Casey Affleck’s moody character is an underdeveloped version of Pat Kenzie in Gone, Baby, Gone (2007). Woody Harrelson gives us a character that combines his crooked cop in Rampart (2011) with the sleazy enforcer of No Country for Old Men (2007). Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) is once again a morally conflicted junkie.
Kate Winslet stands out from the crowd only because she chooses scenery-chewing with her turn as the wife of the imprisoned Russian mobster. She’s Lady MacBethsky, and she sinks her teeth into the role and the accent. Go big or go home. And Chiwetel Ejiofor can sell anything to an audience. He’s nothing less than committed, and he breathes some life into a tired character type.
Despite all of these criticisms, Triple 9 is better than your average “average crime film”. If you go to the time and expense of seeing it in the theater, you will likely be a bit disappointed. If you come across it on a Saturday night scrolling through your streaming Netflix suggestions, you might be (mildly) pleasantly surprised.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.