Triple 9Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/26/16 11:24:26
There are any number of crimes and misdemeanors on display in “Triple 9”—hardly a scene goes by without at least one murder, robbery, double-cross or parking violation—but the biggest one has to be the wasting of so many talented people on a narrative that would fail to cut the mustard even as a middling mid-season replacement quickly slapped together to fill in for some high-profile series that unexpectedly went south quicker than expected. With a story as silly as the one presented here, one might reasonably expect it to serve as the basis of some crummy DTV exercise starring the likes of Eric Roberts, Danny Trejo, a rapper you don’t instantly recognize and a Playboy Playmate in the lead roles—the kind of thing that would be gathering dust on the shelf at Blockbuster if such things still existed. And yet, a number of high-profile names inexplicably decided to lend their skills to a project so dopily derivative that even their stand-ins might have passed on it for not quite being up to their standards. Perhaps they can all take solace in the fact that besides being badly written and lazily acted, it has been made in such a sloppy and smeary manner that they could plausibly deny that they were in it and no one, based on the mucked-up visual presentation, would be able to positively identify them based on what is seen (almost) on the screen.Set in Atlanta, the film focuses on a small group of cops and former soldiers who have decided to utilize their particular talents by staging a series of robberies on behalf of the local Russian-Israeli mob that is currently being led by Irina Vaslov (Kate Winslet. . .yes, Kate Winslet) while her husband languishes in prison back in Russia—he is supposedly so dangerous that Putin himself arranged to have him locked up without a trial. As the film opens, the guys—leader Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who has a son with Irina’s sister (Gal Gadot), cops Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Jorge (Clifton Collins Jr.) and brothers/ex-soldier Gabe (Aaron Paul) and Russell (Norman Reedus)—pull off a major bank robbery but barely escape after causing all sorts of inadvertent mayhem on the freeway involving the triggering of a dye pack. To make matters worse, Irina coldly informs Michael that the job is only half-done and if they want their payment (and to continue breathing), they need to break into the local Homeland Security office and steal some documents that will ensure her husband’s release from prison. They refuse at first but when Irina makes her position clear (while allowing one of the actors to return to their TV commitments quickly), they grudgingly accept.
The only hitch with their break-in plan is that they know that they will not have enough time to bypass security and retrieve the files before the police arrive to stop them. Their ingenious solution is to have another cop killed at a distant location—once the announcement that an officer has gone down (the 9-9-9 referred to in the title), practically everyone will head for that crime scene and give them a more-than-adequate time frame to complete the task at hand. For the intended target, they select Marcus’s new partner, Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), a straight-shooting new arrival to the department who is already beginning to suspect that there is something in the air—not only does it get the do-gooder out of their hair but the fact that he is the nephew of Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson), the major crimes investigator who is investigating their last robbery, all but ensures that every available cop will be rushing to that crime scene and ignore theirs. In news that will no doubt come as some kind of shock, things go sideways pretty quickly and the body count begins to climb significantly as the gang tries to tie up the various loose ends and Chris tries to get to the bottom of what is going on.
Watching “Triple 9,” you get the sense that it was made by a first-time filmmaker who studied the entire oeuvre of Michael Mann (yes, even “The Keep”) before stepping behind the camera for the first time but somehow failed to learn a single thing in the process. The screenplay by newcomer Matt Cook aims for the kind of epic urban poetry of something like “Heat” but instead veers back and forth between the derivative and the utterly inscrutable throughout. Mann’s crime epics have the sweep of a novel and are aided immeasurably by his ability to beautifully convey plot and character elements almost wholly through visual means instead of through endless bits of exposition. This film tries that as well but has no idea how to go about accomplishing this and the result is a narrative in which there are entire scenes in which the dramatic points are so willfully obscured as to be inexplicable. Likewise, the characters and their motivations are often just as obscure and by the time you finally figure out who all of these people are and their relationships to each other, it is long past the point when any reasonable person could possible continue to have any real interest in them. The film even tries to mimic the alternately slick and gritty DV look of Mann’s last few outings but does it so badly that the simple act of watching the film is a chore—the visuals are so dark and murky that even Clint Eastwood might find it too dark for his tastes.
And yet, the film was directed not by some magpie making an ineffectual debut but by John Hillcoat, the Australian director behind such films as “The Proposition,” “The Road” and “Lawless.” While that sort of explains why so many good actors would voluntarily choose a screenplay as the one provided here, though it leaves open the question of why Hillcoat himself decided to take it on. There is certainly never any point when he demonstrates any particular feel on interest in the material at hand. Ninety percent of the scenes are the usual police procedural boilerplate that are executed in such a formulaic matter that the viewers possibly have the lines down colder than the actors and the other ten percent are so bizarre that they almost defy belief. For example, there is a bit during the opening chase in which one of the thieves inadvertently trips a dye pack in the money and their car careens down the freeway as it fills up with red coloring—an arresting image, admittedly, but not arresting enough to overcome the question of why these allegedly hard-core pros would be dumb enough to set it off? There is also the brief appearance by Michael K. Williams, the actor best known for his work on the gritty drama “The Wire.” Having him in the movie as a sort of homage to “The Wire” makes sense, I suppose, but without giving it away, he is asked to do something in the scene that is so odd that it pretty much derails it and causes all of the information being conveyed to be lost in the confusion.“Triple 9” is one of those films that leaves you with nothing other than a certain amount of admiration for the dogged professionalism on the part of the actors despite presumably realizing early on that the end result was not necessarily going to be a highlight in their various filmographies. Beyond that, it is a film that somehow manages to be sadistically violent and relentlessly seedy as well as boring beyond belief-perhaps if the film had gone for a more darkly comedic approach in the tradition of the Coen Brothers, its lurid excesses might have paid off. Had it been made by a bunch of unknowns and over-the-hill types, it might not have hurt so much but with all the talent involved, it cannot be seen as anything more than a major disappointment. If anyone out there tries to tell you otherwise, call it in as a 5150.
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