Triple 9 is a mostly thrilling genre exercise with some poor script choices.
Australian director John Hillcoat has established that a world run by the ungovernable is his focus. In his breakthrough, The Proposition (2005), Hillcoat spun an Old West-style story of revenge set in the Australian outback while his adaption of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2009) cast a father and son adrift in a post-apocalyptic world. Hell, his third film was called Lawless. In his most recent offering, Triple 9, Hillcoat depicts lawlessness in the people sworn to maintain law and order: cops.
Stuffed with a rich cast and numerous plot threads, Triple 9 can be at times exciting and frustrating. Most of its characters are macho cops who earn a little extra on the side by pulling off bank heists. Cops flaunting their masculinity is nothing new, but neither is anything else here. However, watching stars like Woody Harrelson and Kate Winslet ham it up is fun, even when most of the script is really quite dour.
Set in Atlanta, the movie begins as a group of masked men (including Chiwetel Ejiofor and Anthony Mackie) knock off a bank with thrilling bravado. The plan is perfectly executed until one of the robbers (Aaron Paul) gets greedy and steals some extra cash, money that covers them in red dye and forces a desperate escape on a rush hour-packed freeway. We soon learn that most of the group is made up of cops and they are pulling off jobs for the Russian mob (led by the icy Winslet). But the deck is stacked against them when Winslet refuses to pay them until they pull off one more heist.
There is a learning curve here as Triple 9 features as many characters as an entire season of “The Wire.” Forced into carrying out Winslet’s intentions, the group decides to divert attention by setting up a 999: the code used when an officer has been shot. Now all they need is a target. Enter Detective Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), a fresh-faced cop transferred in from a nicer district who is also the nephew of Sergeant Detective Jeffrey Allen (Harrelson). With his familial connections, Chris seems like the perfect mark and Triple 9 is suddenly not only a heist film, but a suspense thriller as Chris not only evades the dirty cops, but members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang.
While there is really nothing new at play here, Triple 9 is exciting, fun and suspenseful when it’s at its best. Hillcoat knows how to stage an action sequence and there are a quite a few good ones here that merit the price of admission. Things go sideways though in the slower moments when Matt Cook’s script tries to beef up the characters. There are just so many films about crooked cops that we really don’t need another one, especially one that features lines such as, “You ever point a gun at me again, you’d be stupid not to use it.” And even though it’s great seeing Harrelson here, he’s done the same thing, but better in “True Detective” and Rampart.
Triple 9 is a mostly thrilling genre exercise with some poor script choices, especially its final moments. There is way too much going here with too many characters. Actors such as Norman Reedus and Michael K. Williams are absolutely wasted. But do we really need more? One can count on both hands movies just like this one (you try it! I’ll start you off with Heat). But that doesn’t mean Triple 9 isn’t a worthy entry in the canon. It’s worthy, but nothing really new.