Triple 9 shows sparks of originality in what is otherwise another valiant-but-flawed effort from director John Hillcoat.Despite boasting another all-star cast, Hillcoat doesn’t deliver for the modern heist thriller genre in much the same way he didn’t deliver in his prohibition gangster flick Lawless. They are equally valiant efforts, which both have hints of genius; scenes where you sit up and pay attention; moments that you wish were a part of a better, more cohesive whole. They just could have – and should have – been more memorable entries in their respective, over-burgeoning, genres.Triple 9 has a strong – if not wholly original – premise, with a motley crew of corrupt and ex-cops doing jobs at the behest of the Russian mob, the latest of which requires a more elaborate distraction: a code triple nine 'officer down' cop killing to draw the heat away from the intended target. After zeroing in on a suitable victim, the crew put the wheels in motion to take down this last impossible score, but – unsurprisingly – not everything goes to plan.
Kick-starting with a Heat-like armed robbery, initially Triple 9 distinguishes itself from its genre-defining predecessor with a stylish and visually colourful twist that will grab you from the get-go. It’s not long, however, before things start to fall back into a far more familiar pattern, with Kate Winslett’s unlikely Russian mob boss strong-arming the crew’s leader, a beleaguered Chiwetel Ejiofor, who has a convoluted history with the Russian crime family that is haunting his every move. Casey Affleck’s fresh blood ‘good cop’ provides the target for the crew’s triple nine action, but actually going through with the killing is of varying concern to the rest of the crew, from Clifton Collins Jr’s itchy trigger to Anthony Mackie’s hesitance. Meanwhile Woody Harrelson’s seasoned (with alcohol) Sergeant, and uncle to Affleck, is on the trail of the crew.
All the pieces are here to make a great heist thriller, following Heat’s 20-year lead, or even a very good one, which was pretty much what Casey’s big brother Ben Affleck’s impressive 2010 thriller The Town was, but Hillcoat doesn’t appear capable of bringing them together. The tension is often unbearable – with the scenes involving Casey Affleck and Anthony Mackie particularly well realised – whilst the action is very impressively staged indeed (not least in that opening heist).
An excellent cast, and impressive action elevate an otherwise flawed crime thriller.
The cast largely do their jobs commendably, although also – almost entirely – unexceptionally, with many of them struggling to escape the constraints of some rather one-dimensional genre-type characters. From the painfully earnest and untarnished one good officer, to the ‘tragically’ corrupt cops who are being coerced into committing these crimes, to the psychopathic gang member who just wants to shoot everybody. Even Kate Winslet’s larger-than-life turn as a colourful mobster feels slightly clunky, with only really Harrelson distinguishing himself admirably, although even then still largely by just being himself.
Ultimately, though, it feels like Hillcoat’s the one to blame. He similarly wasted a game, all-star cast in Lawless, and tinkered there with some rather jarring editing, which jumped the narrative around in ways that really didn’t serve the end result in any positive fashion. Here he’s up to the same tricks, with messy editing that sees scenes muddled and jumped around and even abruptly ended, almost making you scratch your head as to what both him and his editor (ironically, the same guy who worked on The Town, but also the same guy who edited the equally disjointed Child 44) were thinking when they put this all together.
Despite all of this, there’s plenty to enjoy in Triple 9. If you can somehow escape the problems, ignore the inconsistencies, and ignore the rampant familiarity with its far better progenitors, then just on a scene-by-scene basis a great deal of it works. It remains largely both entertaining and enthralling, as a strong, taut all-star thriller with excellent action sequences. It’s just yet another Hillcoat film which can now get labelled as ‘should have been much better’.
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