Netflix UK film review: Triple 9
Mark Harrison | On 29, Jun 2016
Director: John Hillcoat
Cast: Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Woody Harrelson, Anthony Mackie, Kate Winslet
Watch Triple 9 online in the UK: Netflix UK / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
The calibre of Triple 9 should suggest one of the very best movies of the year. Director John Hillcoat, (The Proposition, The Road, Lawless) marshalling stars Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Kate Winslet, Woody Harrelson, Aaron Paul and Norman Reedus? It’s a “shut up and take my money” package if ever you’ve heard of it, but sadly, it doesn’t have much more going for it.
It opens strongly enough, with a crack squad made up of both criminals and cops robbing a bank in Atlanta on behalf of Russian crime boss Irina (Winslet.) Instead of paying them for the successful operation, Irina instead coerces former mercenary Michael (Ejiofor) and the team to undertake a second, more daring heist on a government office, as part of the ongoing effort to free her gulag-bound husband.
Together, the team conspire to murder a police officer, banking on the triple nine code being the only possible thing that will distract the cops for long enough to complete the mission. Enter Chris Allen (Affleck), a recent transfer who unwittingly proves to be the team’s ideal candidate in the eyes of his more corruptible partner Marcus (Mackie.) As Chris’ uncle, Sgt. Jeffrey Allen (Harrelson), investigates the bank robbery, Chris unwittingly goes about his job in the crosshairs of the ruthless gang.
Triple 9 is a gritty and nihilistic affair, which doesn’t skimp on the violence or the macho confrontations, which means there’s at least some consistency in theme between Hillcoat’s historical/dystopian works and this first contemporary feature. The director knows how to shoot the heck out of an action sequence and the uncertainty of the opening set piece is instantly gripping, especially when coupled with Atticus Ross’ unsettling score. Sure enough, the opening culminates in one of those iconic moments that helps a film like this to stand out, and sure enough, provides the key art for the posters.
However, the standoffish tone of the opening only gives way to further obscurity throughout the film. This is one of those rare films where the stakes for each character are made abundantly clear, but there’s a weird lack of urgency, because it still plays like a by-the-numbers police procedural and the subversion doesn’t work when the plot is also utterly predictable. On the evidence presented here, Hillcoat has never met an SUV he didn’t want to blow up, and boy do we know it by the fifth time it happens.
The strong casting is to its advantage, but even outside of a breathtakingly random cameo by The Wire’s Michael Kenneth Williams, they’re a mixed bag. On the positive side, Affleck does decent work in a role for which he was apparently not the first choice, Ejiofor does a good line in growly grimacing and Mackie modifies his reliable wingman routine with a more dangerous edge. However, the film squanders Paul as another Jesse Pinkman-lite punk who is infinitely beatable and traumatised, and Reedus has about as much screen-time as Williams does in his cameo.
Elsewhere, Winslet wrangles a cringeworthy Russian-Jewish accent with the poise of someone who’s about to shout after Moose and Squirrel. Alas, she’s still the standout in a hyper-masculine film, in which Gal Gadot and Teresa Palmer are cast as an aloof ex and a doting wife respectively, and each have fewer lines between them than the performers at the obligatory “edgy” strip club scene.
The unlikely highlight is Harrelson, whose thoughtful and tormented sergeant could have stepped off the page of any one of a dozen different films like this, but becomes characterful through the liberal coining of terms like “Kosher Nostra” in relation to Irina and “Insta-Google-tweet-face” when despairing of social media. The elder Allen could have been the most clichéd character of all, but Harrelson’s eccentricity gives the film some much needed surprise value.
Hillcoat’s eye for action delivers time and again, along with nicely juxtaposed images, such as a couple pushing a baby stroller full of dope outside their housing estate, or SWAT members posing for a selfie with a perp who has an NWA title tattooed on his exposed midriff, or the simple gruesome sight of a corpse exhaling gun smoke after being shot in the head. But all of these incidental moments go to show how the film is less than the sum of its parts – had it been better, the gloriously perfunctory ending might have been held up as one of the better judged finales of the year.
Triple 9 takes its story of men destroying themselves (and each other) terribly seriously, but it evaporates on contact with anything else that Hillcoat has previously made. It’s just as nihilistic as any of those films, but it ultimately winds up feeling like a potboiler in the most dissatisfying sense, with great talents taking a great premise and turning out a less than great movie. It’s bookended by strong, memorable set pieces, but it’s ultimately heartless, if not hollow, which means it’s a triple 6 from us.
Triple 9 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.