What happens when an A-list cast winds up with C-minus material? You get something along the lines of Triple 9, a movie that would feel more comfortable in a Redbox machine rather than in the formidable hands of director John Hillcoat (Lawless, The Road). An adult crime drama with grit-and-grime to spare, but lacking severely in originality department, it’s by no means the worst. It’s hard to imagine a film starring a dynamite roaster of Casey Affleck, Aaron Paul, Anthony Mackie, Kate Winslet, Woody Harrelson, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Clifton Collins Jr. — to name just a handful — ending up completely unsavory. But throughout it all, there’s a nagging sense they could all be doing better, that they are only utilizing some of their potential. And this is a feeling that drags from the first forgettable scene until the very last.
By way of The Departed or The Town, Hillcoat’s latest ropes us into the high-crimes of a band of crooks in the dirtiest sectors of Atlanta, GA. Lead by Michael Atwood (Ejiofor), these guys have worked their system to a science. During a bank robbery, they cover themselves head-to-toe in dark ski masks, sunglasses and other assorted black items to make their appearance completely undetectable. They speak Spanish in the process to make the cops trace their tracks to the Spanish drug cartel. They plan their executions to-the-dot, assuring themselves no second is wasted. And though their latest heist doesn’t necessarily go according to plan, they get the job done — and that job comes at the hands of Irina Vlaslov (Winslet), Michael’s boss and the wife of a locked-behind-bars Jewish gangster in a Russian prison.
These criminals give the safety deposit box they were asked to retrieve her, hoping to receive the small fortune they were supposed to be given in return. But of course, there’s a catch: For she holds onto the payment until the men perform another job on her behalf — one that’ll get her husband out of his cell, she hopes. Michael wants to refuse, but he’s got his hands tied. That’s because he’s got family ties in their bloodline thanks to a son, Felix (Blake McLennan), he shares with Irina’s less-intelligent-but-very-beautiful younger sister Elena (future Wonder Woman Gal Gadot). When Irina refuses to let Michael have shared custody of his son unless he performs this last job, he begrudgingly accepts.
But there are more layers to the puzzle, of course. For two of the men in the brigade, Marcus Belmont (Mackie) and Franco Rodriguez (Collins Jr.), serve double time as cops. And now working beside Marcus is a loyal-to-a-fault newbie Chris Allen (Affleck), the kind of law-protector that actually wants to make a difference. How sweet. In the midst of figuring out their next move, things go awry when their driver (The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus) winds up dead, much to the dismay of his hopped-up younger brother/fellow crew member Gabe (Paul). As they scramble to figure out how to pull of their next heist, they decide to stage a “999” — the code for a cop killing. They hope to get Chris, the nephew of Detective Jeffrey Allen (Harrelson), down-for-the-count, forcing every acting member of the fuzz to the scene of such a crime while they perform the biggest crime of their careers, under their noses, on the adjacent part of town.
But things get complicated, you bet, when Chris and Marcus get close, and Irina remains untruthful to her word, and Detective Allen begins to catch wind of their plans, and Gabe gets dangerously close to putting the whole operation to shit. And the heavy drama keeps coming and coming and coming.
Throughout it all, you can’t help but feel as though you’ve seen all this before —and done so much better. Matt Cook’s screenplay often plays like a greatest hits from the heavy-handed dramas of the late’80s-mid ‘90s, the kind of films that wouldn’t be uncommon on Michael Mann’s filmography. All the clichés are there, from the dirty cops to the last score. And though the cast does an admirable job revitalizing them, and Hillcoat pays close attention to make the grungy slums of Atlanta become a character in-and-of themselves, there’s not enough meat here to chew, or creative spark to gleam.
From The Proposition to Lawless, Hillcoat’s movies usually always looking at the larger picture in the life of crime. And though he gives hints of commentary on the aftermath of the Iraq war and how our surroundings ultimately affect our character, Triple 9 lacks a greater message. Sure, Hillcoat captures an appropriately merciless, ruthlessly violent world here as he always does, but one that lacks a clear pulse or a real edge. Nothing about these proceedings are especially shocking, and without the service of a stronger narrative, they sometimes come across as needlessly excessive. And worse of all, it becomes something I never thought I’d ever consider a Hillcoat picture in the past: predictable. When he comes at the service of a sub-par screenplay, however, such is the case.
As far as the cast themselves go, only Affleck ever truly stands out. Bulked up and given a moral complexity that feels rooted deep in reality, much like he did in The Finest Hours last month, he gives a weight and an honesty to his character that was severely lacking before. As far as everyone else, however, they’re basically going through the motions. Harrelson’s drunken, intensely loud-mouth detective is the kind of role he can pretty much do in his sleep at this point. Winslet struggles mightily to make her hard-pressed Russian accent come across as natural. Paul’s greatest challenge is acting alongside a downright awful dingy frohawk on his head, especially as he fits inside the kind of role I feared he would often get typecast in outside his days of Breaking Bad. Mackie and Collins Jr. are fine, but only rarely get much to work with — much like Teresa Palmer as Chris’ forever-accepting wife, Michelle. And Ejiofor is also pretty good, but beyond his family commitments, you never really get a true sense of Michael’s character.
And as Triple 9 goes along, it does admittedly get a little better. The middle act promises a better movie that doesn’t come through, but the last act is at least better than the first. All-in-all, though, this is just a mid-level effort from an exceptional roaster of talent, one who could almost certainly do something much better in each other’s presence if given the material to back each other up. As such, this is largely direct-to-DVD material prompted up by an Oscar-caliber cast, resulting in a film that also becomes something I never thought I would call a Hillcoat feature: forgettable, at best.