“Triple 9” Movie Review


     “Triple 9” attempts to follow in the footsteps of classic urban crime sagas such as Michael Mann’s “Heat”, but falls short of those prospects at the script level where many of the characters are underwritten, and the overall plausibility of the scenario is all but diminished by the third act.  Directed by John Hillcoat (“Lawless”) and written by first time feature scribe Matt Cook, the film follows a crew who specializes in the same sort of high end robberies that, well, Robert DeNiro and Val Kilmer’s characters also did in “Heat”.  This group of criminals has a slightly different make up however, and their motivations are driven for reasons other than money.  Hillcoat manages a number of high powered action sequences which succeed in grabbing the viewer’s attention, but then abruptly loses it with an all over the place plot wrought with gaping holes and cliched characters who fail to set themselves apart from similar characters within the genre.

     Perhaps more so than “Heat”, Hillcoat may have been going for something more along the lines of Antoine Fuqua’s “Training Day”, especially considering the pairing of a rogue gang unit detective, Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie), and an eager newly transferred detective, Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), who partner up to patrol the gritty underbelly of Atlanta’s gang turf.  What Chris doesn’t know, despite several suspicious and obvious clues, is Marcus is part of the aforementioned crew responsible for a recent bank robbery.  The crew is led by Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a former Special Ops soldier and veteran of the Iraq War.  In addition to Marcus, the crew also includes a current Homicide detective named Franco Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr.), another Special Ops guy named Russell Welch (“The Walking Dead’s” Norman Reedus), and the resident hot head and bad decision maker, Gabe Welch (played in true Jesse Pinkman fashion by the man himself, Aaron Paul).  And likely the best example of their ability and precision is seen during the opening credits, when Hillcoat stages a bank heist by the group which features GPS tracking of the police response, TASER shotgun rounds to incapacitate guards and uncooperative patrons, and a terrible decision by one of the men to grab cash in addition to the safe deposit box they happen to be after.

     In addition to the ongoing development, or lack thereof, we see between Marcus and Chris, the story continually cuts to Michael’s ties with the Russian Mob, of whom he has a son with the boss’s sister.  The boss, Irina Vlaslov, is played Kate Winslet, sporting an overdone Russian accent.  It is she who uses the leverage of Michael’s son and his ability to see him while in the custody of her sister, Elena (Gal Gadot), to blackmail him and his crew into completing these high risk jobs.  Making matters worse, she refuses to pay the men for the bank heist and now wants them to break into a highly secure Homeland Security building in order to steal sensitive government information.  As you can imagine, this leads to plenty of stress for all involved, yet they know they have no choice.  All of this is intercut with actual police work at times, where Marcus and Chris cross paths with various gang members who might figure into the story later.  We also get a look into the actual investigation going on behind the scenes into the bank heist itself, which happens to be led by Chris’s uncle, Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson).

     The main issue with most police related films is the fact they tend to sacrifice the opportunity to present something realistic in order to be more cinematic.  An obvious example of this is a scenario midway through in which the gang unit knows the location of a triple murder suspect (the guy actually severed the heads of three people) and chooses to make entry themselves with the cover of two ballistic shields and handguns.  During their initial approach, they take automatic weapon fire from high ground and yet still advance into the building.  While this may look heroic to most, the reality is with the information the detectives had, this would’ve been an hours long SWAT operation in which the objective would have been to slow the situation down and wait it out.  Now we all realize that wouldn’t make a great movie action sequence and thus the filmmakers give us the usual cowboy routine that ups the body count and allows for an elaborate foot chase involving our two lead detectives.  At times it may be exhilarating to watch, but realize this is all at the expense of realism.  

     Incidentally, for those who watched the second season of “True Detective”, you may recall nearly the same situation where a group of unprepared and under equipped detectives take automatic weapons fire from high ground in an attempt to arrest a murder suspect.  In that scenario, the detectives were told SWAT was unavailable, so they decided to do it themselves.  Know this. Real life police agencies do not operate in this manner and because the majority of people form their opinions about police based on what they have seen in movies and television, is it any wonder why some have the feelings they do about the men and women who have sworn to protect them?  I often wish filmmakers would take more responsibility with what they present as factual, especially when dealing with sensitive issues like law enforcement.

     With all of these revolving subplots to rotate, “Triple 9” (999 is Atlanta’s code for Officer Down) suffers greatly due to information overload, where much of the proceedings fail to receive the kind of time necessary to explain several important character relationships.  Imagine if any season of “The Wire” was compressed into a two hour film and you would get “Triple 9”, which is a shame since the cast is full of supremely talented actors. And that includes a cameo by Omar (Michael Kenneth Williams’ signature character from “The Wire”) himself!  Both Mackie and Affleck, though they should not be compared to Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke, shine on screen together and would be a welcome addition to a cop story that can actually take full advantage of what they have to offer.  Mackie is spot on in the way he deals with the criminal element and Affleck’s no nonsense approach he espouses with many of his previous characters works well with this material, but could’ve been more memorable if the script had been up to par.  GRADE: C-