D: John Hillcoat. DP: Nicolas Karakatsanis. W: Matt Cook. Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor/Casey Affleck/Woody Harrelson/Anthony Mackie/Aaron Paul/Norman Reedus/Kate Winslet/Gal Gadot/Clifton Collins Jr./Teresa Palmer/Michelle Ang.
The award season frenzy still has many enraptured, but in the meantime movies are still being released! Among those is a new film, Triple 9, from director John Hillcoat about a strategic group of military con men and dirty cops who rob a bank only to be forced to do a follow up job. None other than Oscar winner Kate Winslet steps up to that plate in Russian accented stilettos. But she is better in Triple 9 than a single frame of Steve Jobs.
Hillcoat’s last film, 2012’s Lawless, was a favorite of mine. Its development struggle with this one was similar, it came together and fell apart multiple times. But unlike Lawless (as well as Hillcoat’s The Road and The Proposition) Triple 9 is not a bleak frontier set story. Its urban sweaty Atlanta landscape surely feels alive, but its core group of men are so selfish you hardly want to root for them. Hillcoat gets the setting right, but can never really pull you into a tale probably better suited to crime fiction.
The vagabond group is led by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Michael whose child with Irina’s (Winslet) sister Elena (new Wonder Woman Gal Gadot) is the wretch in everyone’s plan. Michael gets his group together of fellow military man Russell (Norman Reedus) and dirty detectives Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Franco (Clifton Collins Jr.). Russell’s former cop brother Gabe (Aaron Paul) tags along and nearly botches the first job. The group is forced to proceed with the second job and concoct the Triple 9 plan, as 999 stands for the code for a police officer down. With the city responding to that crisis for ten to fifteen minutes the other robbery can occur.
New gang unit cop Chris (Casey Affleck) becomes their target as he is partnered up with Marcus. Affleck’s Chris and Mackie’s Marcus may have competing concepts of their job, but a sequence where Chris leads the gang unit into a project after a suspect is gripping and the best part of the film. Triple 9 is able to show the different objectives of departments like homicide and gang units and how each group has its own ecosystem tenderly balanced. Circling around the group is Woody Harrelson as Chris’ uncle Jeff, also a detective, who smells something isn’t right early on. Looking like he walked from his True Detective set onto this one, Jeff is nothing we wouldn’t expect from Harrelson, grass included.
Every actor does well here, each man stands their own with Ejiofer playing his paternal role well. Winslet’s accent is even and it’s a bit fun to see her play dirty. Yet ultimately the film cannot compete with say a good read of a Dennis Lehane novel. One needs a character you know well when all the violence, betrayals and deaths rain down. Without it you are left walking out the cinema asking, who cares? We have to root for someone knee deep in all that crap! That is what Sicario did earlier this year and what I wish Triple 9 could have done.