Picture a crime thriller where every character is like Denzel Washington in "Training Day" and "Triple 9" will start to come into focus. Even our heroes have rough edges and their motivations stay rooted in the shadows. Even our villains have moments of goodness they try to grasp occasionally while holding a gun to the world. "Triple 9" doesn't want the audience to root for any of these people, the film exists only to pin its viewers to the edge of their seats for two hours.
Casey Affleck plays Chris Allen, a veteran cop who gets moved to one of the most dangerous areas of Atlanta, Georgia. His new partner is Marcus Belmont (an excellent Anthony Mackie), a dirty cop who has been pulling robberies with a crew of men just as bad as he is. The leader of the crew is Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor, playing against type), an ex-special forces badass, joined by getaway driver Russell Welch (Norman Reedus), for extra muscle Gabe Welch (Aaron Paul, not playing against type) and Franco Rodriguez (Clifton Collins, Jr.), another dirty cop.
After a breathless bank robbery, the crew becomes indebted to the Russian mafia and they have to pull one more job before they are free from its deadly grasp. The only way they can see to pull off the next job (robbing a Homeland Security holding center) is to kill a cop on the other side of town, causing all the police in Atlanta to bombard the scene, leaving them free to take their time. The perfect choice for their dead cop: Marcus' new partner Chris.
The women of the film have much less to do, although Kate Winslet chews the scenery as the head of the Russian mob. She only half commits to her Russian accent, but is still much better here than she has been in the "Divergent" series. Gal Gadot (soon to be Wonder Woman in "Batman vs. Superman") and Teresa Palmer are just window dressing and would have had actual work to do in a more epic tale.
As intense as the film is, it actually could have used a bit more room to expand. Since so many films clock in way over two hours, it feels counterintuitive to complain about this, but "Triple 9" feels more like an entire season of a premium HBO show condensed into 115 minutes than it does a completely satisfying film. Casey Affleck is our ostensible hero, yet the only thing we ever really learn about him is that he is always chewing gum. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a mesmerizing performance as a very memorable villain, but we never learn what makes his Michael Atwood tick, nor do we learn what sent him on the path of master criminal.
It's a good problem to have when a movie feels like it should have been eight hours longer, but it leaves "Triple 9" feeling like a half measure. Director John Hillcoat is responsible for one of the best westerns ("The Proposition") and one of the best post-apocalyptic thrillers ("The Road") of the century and he definitely makes his mark on the crime thriller genre here, but the deft character work is absent. "Triple 9" has so much plot and so many characters to burn through, that the embarrassment of riches it delivers should have some sprawl to it like Michael Mann did with "Heat" or Scorsese did with "Goodfellas." Regardless, the film is an intense and nail-biting thriller, though it could have been so much more.
Dir. John Hillcoat
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