“Triple 9” is a heist film directed by John Hillcoat; starring Anthony Mackie, Casey Affleck, Kate Winslet, and Woody Harrelson. As a film it feels very familiar; a cops-vs-robbers tale bookended by two tense break-ins. However, where “Triple 9” sets itself apart is by having the antagonists belong to the former group, as the robbers are themselves officers of the law. It’s another twist that we’ve seen before, but it works pretty well, and it gives the characters a level of duplicity which they desperately need.
The title of the film refers to the call that goes out if an officer is down, as the protagonists/antagonists (depending on who you’re routing for) need ten minutes to pull off their final heist. The usual response time for such a crime is three minutes, so they require a substantial distraction to do the job, and a 999 ends up fitting the bill. The idea is that if a cop is killed then every police officer in the city will converge on it; they want to look after their own, so that sort of crime takes precedent over every other, which allows a greater amount of freedom for the robbers to pull off their crime.
It’s actually a good story from a conceptual standpoint, because there’s already a high degree of tension in the heist premise, and the villains have to hide their intentions during the day (because they work with other cops) – they can’t just act like arseholes 24/7. There’s also the fact that the officer the group intends to kill is one of their partners, so the audience has time to become invested in that character and feel conflicted about his fate. We are supposed to care about Chris (Casey Affleck), he is the good guy after all, but we also spend a large portion of the movie with the robbers, so it’s hard to know who to route for.
On top of that, the group are pulling off the job to placate a Russian mafia syndicate run by Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet). Vlaslov has a hold over the leader of the group – Michael, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor (“12 Years a Slave”) – as he happens to be the father of her niece. If he doesn’t follow her orders then she can take the child away from him, so he’s in a very uncomfortable position. So, there’s a lot going on, and to be fair it does sound alright on paper.
However, whilst the story wasn’t bad, the script was very dull. The dialogue was extremely poor and it left a lot to be desired, because the characters didn’t interact with one another with any warmth or sense of history. The main group lacked any sort of chemistry and seemed like a bunch of strangers, which meant that it was hard to care about their individual backstories, given the fact that we only really saw them when they were together. They ended up being one-dimensional thieves squabbling like children, rather than compelling characters trying to make a quick buck.
Moreover, although the film does have its fair share of twists and turns, they lack effectiveness because they’re so obviously signposted. (SPOILER ALERT) It’s incredibly clear that Chris isn’t going to die over the course of the film, because the movie just isn’t dark enough for that eventuality. It’s also pretty damn obvious that the final heist is going to happen, because the film would be utterly pointless if it didn’t. So, with both of those things established, anybody paying attention will know that it will be Chris’ partner, Marcus (Anthony Mackie), who ends up getting shot so that the 999 gets called in, not Chris himself.
“Triple 9” also drags on quite a bit – after the heist takes place and the dust settles the movie feels like it has reached its conclusion, but instead things just keep going. The idea here is that one of the robbers, Franco Rodriguez (Clifton Collins, Jr.), wants to kill the remaining members of the group to clear himself of any blame, so he goes around picking them off one-by-one. This isn’t completely boring in itself, but it was absolutely unnecessary in this particular film because until that point Rodriguez had been a peripheral character. Any momentum that the movie had built had already dissipated, so it would’ve been better to end things on an ambiguous note, with Chris unsure about his partner’s integrity, and everyone else’s future up in the air.
Script aside, the film wasn’t all that bad. The action is fine, and the movie actually has some pretty admirable brutal moments, particularly during the two heists. Nevertheless, “Triple 9” also suffers because the ensemble cast simply doesn’t perform. Aaron Paul (“Breaking Bad”) was woeful, which is incredibly annoying because we all know that he can act, and Kate Winslet’s accent was utterly atrocious. She sounds more like Sergei from the Compare The Market adverts than she does an actual Russian, destroying any sense of immersion and delivering a laughable performance.
Woody Harrelson and Casey Affleck aren’t much better, as the former constantly overacted, playing a clichéd cop with a drinking/drug problem, and the latter was rigid and uninteresting. Still, Anthony Mackie and Chiwetel Ejiofor were decent.
Overall, “Triple 9” is okay. There’s quite a bit of action and if you stop pre-empting what’s going to happen then you might enjoy the ideas in play. It tries to emulate great heist films whilst also bringing a little bit extra to the party, but whilst there are twists and turns aplenty, they were too obviously set-up, and overall the movie was very poorly executed.