Triple 9 full movie review - Well shot and directed, but lacking any emotional impact...
The impossibly bleak "Triple 9" is directed by John Hillcoat who, in the past, has worked with some pretty sombre material in ultra-hopeless films like "The Road".
He's also worked with a cast of big-name actors in the western thriller "Lawless", something which he of course brings to this star-studded feature as well. The cast here is almost too long to list; reliable performers such as Casey Affleck, a.k.a Batman's brother, and Chiwetel Ejiofor are probably the leads, A- Listers Woody Harrelson and Kate Winslet are given supporting roles, and "Triple 9" also features some television icons in the form of Aaron Paul, known for his role as Jesse in "Breaking Bad", and Norman Reedus, the almost invincible, crossbow-wielding hero Daryl Dixon from "The Walking Dead". The story, which attempts to cover a whole lot of ground, follows a band of criminals, lead by Ejiofor's Michael Belmont, who find themselves under the thumb of the Russian mafia, and are subsequently forced into carrying out increasingly problematic heists. We also meet Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), a rookie cop who finds himself partnered up with rogue officer Marcus Atwood (Anthony Mackie) in the most dangerous precinct in town, and with Belmont's crew needing a good distraction to carry out their latest raid, he finds himself in the unknowingly precarious position of being the target for a 'Triple 9': officer down.
If there's one thing that "Triple 9" does particularly well, then it's the hostile and crime-infested atmosphere it is able to create throughout its near-two hour runtime. While the movie might be better suited taking place in a Los Angeles or a Boston, it is somewhat refreshing to see a new city get a grisly makeover, and they do a hell of a job. The neon lighting of Atlanta bars and eerie streets of the night lend the film a rather gloomy and ominous gravitas, and the portrayal of the disenfranchised and unruly neighbourhoods is striking, motivated and, most importantly, appears very real. The version of Atlanta presented in this movie feels truly lived in, and you can't help but sympathise with the characters for having to go about their lives in such unstable conditions. No one person in this movie ever seems safe from the cold grip of death that seems to be lurking around the city, and "Triple 9" is curious, if only for the mystery of who will survive such a dire situation.
Atticus Ross's music is pulsating and biting in the best way, and the David Fincher-collaborator's score not only does a tremendous job of building tension, but also perfectly complements the gritty and unrelenting darkness of the feature. The film, much like the excellent "Sicario" from last year, really comes into its own during its set-pieces, and Hillcoat proves himself adept at managing them from the very first sequence of the movie. The highlight though, without a doubt, is a police raid on a gangster's hideout which, set to absolutely no score whatsoever, is exciting, unnerving and the most engaging scene in the entire movie. The strong cast do deserve some credit as well; Chiwetel Ejiofor is actually rather likable as a worn-down criminal forced to do the dirty jobs for the good of his son, even if the relationship between him and his partner Elena (Gal Gadot), which leaves him intimately linked to the Russian mafia, isn't fleshed out whatsoever. Speaking of the Russian mafia, it's quite evident how much fun Kate Winslet has playing the hyper-realised and rather cold mob boss Irina, and even then her exchanges with Ejiofor's Michael feel the most emotionally and narratively impactful.
There's a lot going on in "Triple 9" and, quite honestly, it's all a bit too much. In prospect, such a huge and well-known cast seems rather tantalising yet, in practice, the film is left in dire need of some focus. We have the crew of modern bandits at the centre of the story, and they are the ones who really hold your interest. It's frustrating then that the movie spends all of its time jumping back and forth, in rather erratic fashion, between them, the Russian mafia, Woody Harrelson's Woody Harrelson type character carrying out a rather fruitless and unnecessary investigation, bent cops played by Mackie and Collins Jr. abusing the system, and Affleck's Chris getting used to some pretty nasty streets. It's too bloated and half of those plot-lines could quite easily be dropped or reworked to make "Triple 9" a much more cohesive thriller. This also contributes to the problem of paper-thin characterisation, which is a similar issue to that faced by "Black Mass" from last year. We spend so little time with even the main characters that it's hard to care about them or even understand their motivations particularly well.
Take Aaron Paul for instance. Besides the fact that he is essentially reprising the role of Jesse Pinkman, to the extent that he even deploys his famous catchphrase 'Bitch' at one point, there is no explanation offered or established as to why he would act in the desperate way he does. Woody Harrelson phones it in with the most typical performance you can imagine from him. Even Casey Affleck is struggling to add anything to the stereotypical role he is given to work with. The problem: everyone is just too far inside their comfort zone and, quite frankly, it gets a little boring. Apart from Ejiofor and perhaps Winslet, I've seen these performances on numerous occasions before. The glue between the set pieces is also quite weak and, with very few characters to feel emotionally invested in, your left waiting for something exciting to come along and pick up the narrative. The film's conclusion is rather unsatisfying and haphazard, tying up the knots in the most by-the-numbers and unoriginal fashion possible. There's a lot of style and probably too much substance, and more than that, it's the substance that we've seen a hundred times before anyway.