In “Triple 9,” Much to Our (Lack of) Surprise, Crime Doesn’t Pay

Triple 9

Triple 9 (John Hillcoat, 2016)

“The code on the street is never black and white,” reads the tagline on the poster (above). It would seem that we are in for a psychologically complex thriller, then, where neither good guys nor bad rule the day, and where the very concept of one or the other may, in fact, be meaningless. I like these kinds of stories, where shades of grey predominate the (here, urban) landscape. Corrupt cops and decent criminals, and all of the permutations in between, are what give so many thrillers their narrative drive, the conflict erupting from a clash of opposing forces. Sadly, Triple 9 does not live up to its promise (nor its premise), despite a few good action sequences. It’s a movie as out of control as the morally bankrupt police officers within it.

Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs), Casey Affleck (The Finest Hours), Anthony Mackie (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Woody Harrelson (The Hunger Games) and Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) star, among others, as the assortment of cops and robbers. John Hillcoat (Lawless) directs, and though the script (by newcomer Matt Cook) is a mess, he does a decent job, in the beginning, setting up character, location and pacing. The opening bank heist – and its bloody aftermath – is well staged, with a nice payoff at the end. We feel we’re in good hands, right before things spin into mediocrity.

Ejiofor plays Michael, a former army explosives man, involved now with a Russian-Jewish mob headed by Kate Winslet’s Irina, with whose younger sister he has a child. Winslet doesn’t look particularly Russian or Jewish, but all of her evil henchmen wear yarmulkes, just in case we doubt her background. In fact, there is so much emphasis on the mob’s Jewish roots – and they’re a nasty bunch – that I couldn’t help wonder if either director or screenwriter (or both) had an antisemitic ax to grind. Irrespective of this, Winslet sure tries hard, accent and all, in a dreadfully underwritten part (well, the whole movie is underwritten), to make us believe that she is, indeed, Satan’s wife. Using Michael’s boy as bait, Irina refuses payment on the first job (that bank heist), demanding, instead, that he go for one more score. Just one! I think we know the drill by now, no?

Not only does this development not please Michael, but it really pisses off his crew, made up of another former military guy, that guy’s brother, and two dirty cops. To complicate matters, one of those police officers, Marcus (Mackie), gets stuck with a new partner, Chris (Affleck), who – despite a little bit of racial profiling here and there – is what passes for this movie’s hero. Harrelson shows up straight from the set of Bad Lieutenant as Chris’s uncle, Jeffrey, a police commander with a serious drug habit. Soon, all of these various elements collide in what could be interesting ways if the situations were novel (they are not), yet so much feels recycled from better movies (including Training Day) that at some point I just began to tune out the noise. Yes, blood is spilled and people die, but so what?

About that title. Apparently, 999 in official police-radio lingo means that an officer is down. Our friends in the force decide that the only way to pull off the second job is to divert the entire Atlanta (thank you, Georgia film incentives!) police force by shooting a fellow officer (not one of their crew). Of course, they choose Affleck’s honest cop as the target. If you wonder whether they’ll succeed or not, then you clearly haven’t seen enough of these kinds of movies, in which case I wish you well, and hope you have a good time.

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