In Hollywood’s conflicted relationship with portraying cops and criminals, there are certain shorthands which let you know who the bad guys are and who the bad-bad guys are.
If your thief is handsome, well-dressed, and sarcastic, he’s clearly not that bad; maybe a bit of a rapscallion, but charming. We root for him. If he’s grimy, foul-mouthed, and – this is key – not white, then he’s the kind of bad-bad guy who hurts people during heists. (But maybe he feels bad about it later.) Movie crimes are judged by the inherent likability of those who commit them. Keep that fragile and arbitrary dichotomy in mind as we discuss Triple 9.
The best starting point to explain Triple 9’s story is Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a low-level criminal and former special ops soldier and mercenary whose entire team went on to become gangsters or dirty cops. The gangsters include Russell Welch (Norman Reedus) and his junkie brother Gabe (Aaron Paul); the cops are Major Crimes detective Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie) and Homicide detective Franco Rodriguez (Clifton Collins, Jr). The crew pulls off a bank robbery at the beginning of the film to steal some data to exonerate the husband of Irena Vaslov (Kate Winslet), the Russian Jewish mafia matriarch who also happens to be Michael’s former sister-in-law. When Irena blackmails Michael by taking away his son, he has no choice but to assemble another job, stealing data from a government facility. To provide cover for this heist, the crew plans to distract the police by causing a “999” – the murder of an officer. The officer they choose is Marcus’ new partner Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), a recent transfer who pulled favor from his uncle, Sgt. Detective Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson). But as the day draws nearer, Marcus and Gabe have second thoughts about what they need to do.
Although convoluted and overwrought, the storyline flows in an intriguing and well-paced manner. If there’s an issue, it’s that director John Hillcoat pulls so much tension into certain scenarios and set pieces that once the payoff happens, there’s a long lull of not-as-interesting beats to follow. The film’s potential energy is greater than its kinetic; it resolutions seem to happen long before the actual ending. This isn’t to dismiss the power of Triple 9’s showdown sequences, they’re effective and riveting to watch, but after the scenes are done and the bullets fired, there’s nowhere to go.
The reason for this is simple: To make the audience care about the in-between scenes where the plot is moving and people aren’t in immediate danger, you must first make them care about the characters. For a cast swimming in Oscar and Emmy wins & noms, the characters are remarkably one-note and trope-driven. This is where those movie shorthands come into play. All the tension in Triple 9 is scenario-based, not because we care about the characters, but because we recognize the positions each of them represent. That, of course, is because we’ve seen these characters before in better works like Reservoir Dogs, The Departed, and most of Michael Mann’s work.
Triple 9 borrows from many sources and manages to create only passing but still inferior counterfeits.
Take Aaron Paul’s character: “Morally conflicted junkie” is literally the man’s entire resume, but we see none of the charisma or humanity of Jesse Pinkman here. We see only the broad strokes of what that character is, the cliffnotes version of the role which should be second nature for Paul. Jesse Pinkman is a strung-out criminal, but he’s not one of those strung-out criminals, which Gabe Welch certainly is. The only person who seems to be able to do anything with their character is Harrelson, and that’s mostly because he’s gotten plenty of practice playing the same role in Rampart. (Side note: These two films should count as Woody’s audition for a third Bad Lieutenant film.)
That said, Hillcoat does use those shorthands effectively and communicates the information that is necessary to get across: No more, no less. Chris and Jeffery literally wear their symbolism around their neck: Chris, the sacrificial lamb and clean cop, wears a cross necklace while Jeffrey, beneficiary of the police state, sports an obnoxious Stars-and-Stripes tie. Teresa Palmer, absolutely wasted as the put-upon cop’s wife, sports her husband’s USMC t-shirts. Other effective visual cues include a response map showing which police respond to which crimes, and a neat moment where Marcus nervously holds onto his gun while driving, when earlier we saw him comfortably allowing it to rest freely in his lap.
Triple 9 is derivative and efficient almost to a fault, but it is also well-made with an interesting visual style and a handful of standout scenes. It’s a “two steps forward, one step back” sort of film that is ultimately difficult to recommend. For whatever good it does, it’s still nothing special compared to all its obvious influences. Triple 9 isn’t really a bad film, but you’d be a lot more satisfied if you just watched any of the works it steals from instead.Liked This? Share It!