Triple 9 (2016, USA, d. John Hillcoat, 115 Minutes)
by Jesse Stringer
It is learned early on in this film that Triple 9 is a police code meaning officer down. This provides the catalyst for what sets up the vast and cluttered plot of John Hillcoat’s latest outing, shockingly titled, Triple 9.
Triple 9 follows a group of criminals that include a couple corrupt cops, and a few guys who work for the Russian mafia. They perform a heist to obtain a safety deposit box that contains information to free a Russian mob boss from prison. Once they give the deposit box to their boss, the boss holds their reward money to use them to perform an even bigger heist. The film also follows a cop who may be at the hands of the mafia, even if he doesn’t know it. Now does this sound utterly original? No. This plot has definitely been recycled through many other films like this. Triple 9 however, manages to provide a tense and entertaining movie that likely won’t be remembered as soon as maybe, next week; but is certainly worth taking the time to check out if one was inclined.
Problems litter this film, and about 90% of them lie in the film’s screenplay. In his first feature script, Matt Cook tried to tackle, maybe, a little too much in a film that should’ve stuck to a simpler formula; and likely would’ve succeeded more had it gone that route. There is just too much going on in this story for a two hour film. Without giving too much away, the story starts on one road and branches off to many other avenues that only make the plot more confusing. On top of that, there are tons of characters to keep track of. Even after seeing it, it is unclear exactly who the audience is supposed to be rooting for. Certain characters seem to exist simply to add another star to the cast list. Triple 9 would’ve likely served as a better television mini-series, to allow it more time to develop its characters and possibly spread out all the information this film tries to cram in its short run time. You can tell Cook was being a little ambitious and setting out to make something different in a very cliched genre. Now that should be respected, but this script unfortunately fails in doing that.
Now in a similar case to last years Sicario, had Triple 9 lacked a skilled director, this film could’ve ended up in really bad shape. Thankfully, John Hillcoat proves his skills here once again. With films like The Road, Lawless, & The Proposition in his catalog; his style of direction certainly fit this film’s dark and gritty tone and he doesn’t hold back from showing the audience things they may not want to see. He displays gruesome imagery throughout and fills many scenes with a nice amount of tension leading into those darker moments. The big problem with the Triple 9’s direction however, is Hillcoat’s inability to make the film feel cohesive. From the films first to last frame, it ends up feeling like there is more than one movie occurring at once. Just tonally inconsistent from scene to scene. It also feels like there was not much effort involved in trying to make the film less convoluted and confusing. As stated before, the script is all over the place, and Hillcoat likely could’ve found some way to make it all a bit easier to understand without having to sit with a notebook in your hand. By the end however, it all makes enough sense to not make one feel frustrated. But putting those problems aside, the best compliment one could give Hillcoat is that he manages to make Triple 9 very entertaining. There really isn’t a dull moment throughout and he also gets some nice performances out of an ensemble of great actors.
With a cast including names like Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Woody Harrelson, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus, and Kate Winslet; one may assume this film would be an Oscar contender. Obviously after seeing it, it comes nowhere near that; but the majority of these actors should not be worried about their reputations being tarnished because they all give great performances, for the most part.. Affleck, Ejiofor and Harrelson aren’t playing roles that would define their careers, but they take what could be very empty shells of characters and bring some life into them. These actors were the standouts here. Both Anthony Mackie and Norman Reedus are fine, as well as Aaron Paul; but he is again typecast in his “Jesse Pinkman” type role from Breaking Bad, though that should be expected in a film like this. And he obviously plays that role well. Kate Winslet however, takes any subtlety she had with her Polish accent in Steve Jobs and throws it away for an over the top performance closely akin to that of Kristin Scott Thomas in Only God Forgives in an extremely similar role. Her character and performance feel completely out of place in this film. It’s never fun to see a great actress tarnish a role, but no one is perfect unfortunately. Thankfully, she isn’t in the film a whole lot, so she is not too much of a distraction from the other nice performances from the rest of the cast.
All in all, Triple 9 ends up working as a solid heist film, thanks to some nice direction and good performances. It is not a great film though and it is also far from original in any sense. However, it’s never boring and it’s paced nicely. The film tries to cover so many different stories and characters that it ends up just being confusing and cluttered. Maybe they should’ve pitched this idea for the second season of True Detective instead of the one they went with. It would’ve likely ended up better.