Nearly two months into 2016, no movie has a finer cast than Triple 9. There might not be another movie all year that boasts such a collection of acting talent. Unfortunately, a stellar group of performers doesn’t always guarantee a great film.
Without such an impressive cast, Triple 9 would probably be nothing more than a grisly crime thriller that ultimately doesn’t have much to say, other than rubbing your face in how nasty and violent the underworld is. But those excellent actors do lift the material, giving life and energy to some rather poorly written roles.
(Full disclosure: My name doppelganger, Ian Casselberry, is part of that cast. He needed a larger part! No, I’m not objective about that. At least someone with our name is making it famous.)
This movie aspires to be a great crime drama, along the lines of Heat or even Inside Man, following a group of criminals who have a big job lined up. The conversation between the ringleader and his lieutenants allude to getting help from corrupt cops, which should make the heist go more smoothly. But one voices suspicion about working with cops, questioning if they can really be trusted in a big crime. That plants the seeds of paranoia which sprout throughout the story.
However, these crooks aren’t just in it for themselves. They’re doing someone else’s dirty work, running dangerous errands for Atlanta’s Russian mob, run by Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet) while her husband is in prison back home. Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the leader of the pack, has emotional ties to these Russians. He was formerly married to Irina’s sister (Gal Gadot), with whom he has a child. Irina uses her little nephew to extort Michael into making dangerous robberies for the mob, stealing evidence that will eventually free her husband.
But to pull off the new heist Irina demands, Michael and his crew need help. More specifically, they need time. The vault Irina wants them to break into will take 10 minutes to crack. That’s way too long, as the police response will arrive in three minutes. But Michael has two cops — Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr.) — running for him, and they have an idea as to how to give themselves more time.
Marcus was just assigned a new partner, Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), promoted from the Atlanta suburbs to do hard police work in the city. He also happens to be the nephew of Sgt. Jeff Allen (Woody Harrelson), who runs the robbery-homicide unit. The white rookie from Buckhead who may have gotten his detective badge through some nepotism is quickly pegged as the key to pulling off that big job.
To keep the police away and create more time for their heist and getaway, Marcus and Rodriguez want to create a “999” call, code for “officer down.” If the police know an officer is shot, every cop in the precinct will swarm upon the scene. That allows Michael’s gang to stage their robbery with virtually no interference. Chris becomes the target of that Triple 9 call. Life is apparently even tougher in the Atlanta projects for a new detective than anyone could have imagined.
But Chris is also no dummy and quickly figures that things don’t quite add up with his new partner. Since he’s coming in from the outside, maybe he also sees things more clearly. On patrol, Marcus is maybe a bit too friendly with some sources and far too harsh with others. A SWAT team raid to arrest a gangster ends with Marcus firing too many shots into the bad guy who’s already down (and probably already dead). There is plenty that he’s not willing to share, indicating that he has something to hide.
However, there isn’t much opportunity to follow through on any suspicions because the Mexican drug cartels and Russian mob are fighting it out in the streets, turning apartment projects into war zones and leaving gory scenes with three severed heads left on a car hood. Earlier in the film, Russian thugs show Irina two people who either crossed the mob or associated with the wrong people stuffed in a trunk after being severely beaten. Oh, and most of their teeth are in a Ziploc bag. The mob ain’t messing around.
Of course, nothing works out quite as it should.Michael and his crew would get Irina’s documents, he’d get his kid back, and the two sides would be done with their business. Everyone but the dead cop presumably lives happily ever after, right? But if it was that simple, there wouldn’t be much of a movie.
We see this at the very beginning when what should be a relatively simple theft (at least for an experienced crew) of a safety deposit box turns complicated because one of the guys can’t resist taking the cash also sitting in the vault. During the getaway, he triggers the dye pack kept with the money, flooding their minivan with a cloud of red dust and making them easier to find.
The red dye billowing out of the car and covering the masked hoods in bright color makes a fantastic visual sequence by director John Hillcoat (Lawless) and cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis. Obviously, the studio thought so too, since most of the movie’s marketing is based on those images. It’s the second-best action scene taking place on a highway featuring characters wearing full face masks and red attire we’ve seen this year (or this month, really) after Deadpool. (Michael’s crew really could have used Colossus to help with the getaway.)
Triple 9 also shines during the aforementioned SWAT raid. There, we see that Chris is an excellent tactical policeman, surely aided by his previous experience in the Marines. The camera follows Chris and three other officers (including Mr. Casselberry) as they search through several rooms and corridors behind a ballistic shield for protection. The thrilling sequence puts the audience right into the action, often taking a first-person view, where it’s not clear who might jump out from behind a corner or what threats (or innocents) might await in the next room.
Two strong set pieces like that could be enough to carry a film, if only the character arcs and story surrounding them were equally as compelling. Yet most of the people in this movie are just there, helping the narrative move along, rather than providing any sort of emotional hook that might make the story truly resonate and stay in our memories for months and years to come.
Why did Michael and his mate Russell (Norman Reedus) turn to high-stakes crime after working in the military? Why did Chris opt for more dangerous police work with a wife and son waiting at home? What made Marcus decide to go rogue? And does Sgt. Allen know how corrupt his department is? Has he been looking the other way or did he have a long game in mind?
All of that is probably too much for the movie to cover in full, but even a line or two could have provided depth to these characters and the story. Instead, Triple 9 opts for more action and violence, figuring that will just drill home the idea that this is an extremely violent life with really bad people that isn’t going to result in a good ending for anyone involved. Sadly, that bleak outcome also applies to those of us who watch the movie.