Review: Triple-9

I like crime films, and I like films you’d call “grim” or “dark”. Triple-9 is both of those things, coupled with an outstanding cast, and yet it’s totally turgid, emotionless and ultimately disappointing.

A group of criminals and corrupt cops, led by Michael Belmont (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and including crooked cops Marcus Atwood (Anthony Mackie) and Jorge Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr.) as well as criminal brothers Russell and Gabe Welch (Norman Reedus and Aaron Paul), are being blackmailed by the Russian mafia in Atlanta, Georgia. Mob leader Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet) charges them with a near impossible heist to recover important information, and the gang decides the only way to achieve this is pulling a “triple-9”, or “999” – the murder of a police officer that will distract the entirety of the local police force. The gang decides on rookie cop Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), whose uncle is Sergeant Jeff Allen (Woody Harrelson), and as you can imagine, not everything goes smoothly…

Look at the cast Aussie director John Hillcoat has got here – Oscar winners Ejiofor and Winslet, acclaimed performers Harrelson and Affleck, and upcoming great actors including Mackie, Paul and Reedus. Despite all that talent, the film is strangely lacking, like the script’s half-arsed first draft was just thrown in and used, and what little the actors have to work with is slim pickings indeed. Winslet is a terrible casting decision as a Russian mobster, with her accent terrible and just a distinct lack of menace even in scenes when you should be terrified of her. Ejiofor meanwhile works really hard with what’s he given, and we get a small sense of the conflicts his master criminal faces, but at the end of the film, where his story takes him is disappointing in the extreme.triple9postersmall

Of the rest, I did like Affleck’s Allen, as the innocent party amidst a rogue’s gallery of scum (including his sleazy uncle, to be honest) – the actor is always in his brother’s shadow, but he picks interesting roles to try and stand out, and the development of his past and family life was also subtle, though the film works hard to make even him unsympathetic at times. Aaron Paul, so good in Breaking Bad, and Norman Reedus (likewise for The Walking Dead) are given the most one-note characters possible, neither given much chance to highlight their acting ability, while Mackie – who we spend most time with – undergoes one of the only conflicts of character in the film, but again feels half-developed. Collins Jr and Harrelson really bring the sleaze, and you can tell the character actors are enjoying themselves, but there’s nobody to like here – possibly only Belmont’s kid, who is used as a pawn in the Russian mob’s games, the poor little sod.

So the actors are underserved and pretty poor – whose fault is this? The script from Matt Cook, and Hillcoat’s need to make everything grim grim grim. If you’ve seen The Road, you’ll know what I mean – the man has a somewhat negative outlook on humanity, and this film paints Atlanta as a teeming hive of gang warfare and corruption, with not one person having a redeemable personality beyond Chris or his wife (and the kid). I guess that might be the point, but it makes it really uninteresting from a dramatic point of view – I didn’t care whether the criminals succeeded or not, because we’re expected to just jump in and be familiar with them – and the bodycount come the end (which is very abrupt) feels like Hillcoat watched the last hour of The Departed and made a crap, grim-dark copy.

In all fairness, Hillcoat’s direction and the grimy cinematography of Nicolas Karakatsanis do nothing to alleviate this – it’s like watching The Wire on a crap TV at some points. Yeah, I understand you’re going for urban, rough and cinema-verite (aka like it’s been shot with normal cameras), but you have to have something to make the film worth watching. And I just didn’t get this here – there’s not much suspense or action, you feel no investment in anyone and I ended up happy that those who died died, regardless of their perceived “goodness” or “badness”. One action scene is pretty good – storming some housing projects to catch a Latino gang-member with authentic-seeming SWAT tactics – but that was it.

The music was a slightly redeeming factor, with long-time Nine Inch Nails collaborator Atticus Ross finally going it alone and making his own soundtrack. Its crackling, techno-frizzle doom really fit the gloom of the movie, but stands in contrast to his work with Trent Reznor and David Fincher simply because the film itself is so poor!

Yes, this was a short review, and yes – cheekily – it was actually pretty fun to write. In summary, please don’t bother with this film, because it’s a complete waste of good actors and your time.

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