There’s a special kind of thrill in having a movie take place in your city. I don’t just mean having been filmed in your city, like basically half of all major productions will be from here on out for Atlanteans. But more like the thrill New Yorkers have had for years, when the film uses the fabric of your city to tell the story, seeing and feeling those little bits of recognition when you know you’ve driven down the same roads those criminals are now barreling down.
Hearing an Atlanta audience chuckle at a joke about Buckhead is one of those rare moments that reminds you of the collective experience that theatergoing can be. It’s the kind of goodwill moment that helped carry me through most of the rest of the unfortunately disappointing Triple 9.
It’s not that Triple 9 is necessarily bad. There’s a good Saturday afternoon popcorn flick in here. Unfortunately, there’s also two or three other strikingly mediocre films mixed in. It’s stuffed to the brim by a cast that seems entirely too qualified for a film that largely asks for masculine grunting and feminine objectification.
We follow a heist team of four, led by Michael Belmont (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an ex-Special Forces man in the grasp of the Russian Jewish Mafia led by the intimidating Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet), who controls Michael’s access to his son thanks to Michael’s son being by her sister, Elena (Gal Gadot).
Michael’s team includes the sweaty brothers, Gabe Welch (Aaron Paul) and Russel Welch (Norman Reedus), and two dirty cops, Jorge Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Marcus Atwood (Anthony Mackie). They’ve got “one last job”: to steal confidential files out of a Homeland Security base. To do that, they’re going to have to distract the police with a “Triple 9,” an Officer Down.
We also follow a young cop, Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), transferred in from Buckhead, to work with his uncle Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson) in the toughest part of the city (though, in John Hillcoat’s Atlanta, they all kind of look like tough parts). His new partner Marcus (remember, from the heist team) seems hostile to him, but just as he starts to warm up, things go awry in a trial by fire for the young family man Chris.
As I said, there’s roughly THREE films worth of plot here, possibly more, and enough cast to configure between 10 tough guy crime films. Yet Triple 9 can’t find a heart to any of it. All of this sound and fury ultimately amounts to nothing, leading to a film that’s a lot of fun but doesn’t work as a piece of storytelling by any stretch of the imagination.
It’s not the cast’s fault. They’re all doing the best they can. They may not be having much asked of them, but they’re doing it. Aaron Paul finally brings the wounded puppy thing that worked for him on Breaking Bad to the big screen, Anthony Mackie continues being ruthlessly entertaining, and Chiwetel Ejiofor uses the hell out of his huge expressive eyes. Gal Gadot proves surprisingly enchanting with very little time, despite spending most of the film as an object. To be fair, that’s a statement that holds for the rest of the film’s female characters, minus Kate Winslet’s Russian devil-woman.
The highlight is Woody Harrelson’s Chief Jeffrey Allen, by the virtue of being the only actor given something interesting to work with. Everyone else is doing good work with basic archetypes, Jeffrey’s a broken, drunken junkie who’s also batshit insane (giving Woody plenty of scene chewing time) and a damn good cop. He’s fun and unpredictable.
Which is more than can be said for the rest of the film, which seemingly settles for just being fun. Oh, Triple 9 thinks it’s unpredictable. But its unpredictability is informed by character stupidity. Matt Cook’s script spends so much time setting up the unbelievable skill level of its characters that when it comes time for things to fall apart, it’s too difficult to believably have any of them screw up through normal means, so they just screw up in ways that strike as instantly baffling. I wasn’t surprised because they were so clever, I was surprised because I couldn’t seriously believe they would have done it.
Perhaps it isn’t all on Cook’s script. The bigger problem might be Hillcoat’s direction, which is, like his characters, equal parts incredibly competent and incompetent. His action scenes are well-staged and legitimately tense within individual scenes. When the film is in the midst of its heists and its police work, the film finds a life and an interesting moment or two. But it quickly becomes clear that’s pretty much the whole reason he made this one.
Because there’s almost no coherency from scene to scene. It’s confusing how much time passes from scene to scene, where exactly they are in the grimy dirty ugly version of Atlanta (the whole of which looks like Hillcoat’s world from The Road), or what anybody’s motivation at any particular moment. He seemed to have had an idea for some action sequences and somehow convinced a bunch of great actors to do them with him.
Triple 9 has no purpose and no function. I can’t honestly tell you why anyone but Michael Belmont was doing what they were doing (because of his son) or what Hillcoat thinks he was saying about them, about crime, about Atlanta, about anything besides how cool he thought this stuff was.
To be fair, some of it is really cool, and really enjoyable to watch. There’s some really strong acting and some thrills to be had. But on the whole, it’s just entirely too incoherent, too empty, and too overstuffed to find anything more interesting than an eventual TNT viewing.