John Hillcoat is a talented filmmaker. All of his movies so far (‘The Proposition’, ‘The Road’ and ‘Lawless’) show that he has a gritty voice and a certain skill with actors. However, his films all feel like they’re lacking something. They share a studious tone suggesting hints of profundity beneath their genre movie façade, but rarely deliver fully on that promise. ‘Triple 9’ might be his most frustrating feature yet in this regard.
It’s a good twisty-turny crime thriller that works just fine as a B-movie, but it’s nothing more than that, despite a parade of famous faces marching across the screen and countless scenes of them looking off camera with pondering expressions, suggesting that the characters are grappling with some sort of subtext that just isn’t there.
The movie kicks off with a nice heist sequence that unapologetically draws comparisons to ‘Heat’ (as does the rest of the movie). Then the first twist arrives when we learn that many members of the robbery gang are either ex-military (including leader Chiwetel Ejiofor and brothers Norman Reedus and Aaron Paul) or dirty cops (Anthony Mackie and Clifton Collins, Jr.). Oh boy! That’s trouble. They were assigned the robbery by Israeli crime lord Kate Winslet, who’s running the local syndicate until her hubby is sprung from prison.
Winslet has Ejiofor under her thumb since he made the mistake of having a child with her sister (Gal Godot), and keeps upping her demands with ridiculously difficult missions. Her next assignment is so tough that they’ll need to kill a cop just to cause a big enough distraction to get the job done. Fortunately, Mackie is given a total do-gooder (Casey Affleck) as his new partner, so at least the gang has a target. However, Affleck is a damn good cop who might catch on in time to survive, and he also has the benefit of being related to the Sergeant Detective (Woody Harrelson). The cops might just catch the robbers after all!
Yeah, that’s a bunch of famous faces and a very tangled plot to contain them all. However, it’s not a complex story that demands so many characters. Quite the opposite, it’s a damn simple cops ‘n robbers tale, so the movie piles on an overabundance of character actors and stars and subplots and twists and discussions of morality and scenes of Woody Harrelson smoking a joint and other stuff just to keep the thing alive.
The actors certainly win points for committing to their thinly drawn roles with enough intensity to create the illusion of depth. Ejiofor and Affleck do their stoic silence thing to maximum effect. Woody Harrelson creates a hysterical self-destructive pothead buffoon out of a role that’s essentially an exposition factory. Kate Winslet takes such delight in spitting out her ridiculous accent and villainous monologues in a parade of tacky costumes that it’s hard not to be amused. Aaron Paul’s haircut is too ridiculous to take his character seriously while Anthony Mackie and Norman Reedus are as mediocre as ever, but so many other actors bounce around the screen around them that it’s easy to just pretend they aren’t there.
The actors are all serving a script that keeps hinting at some sort of subtext that never really grows into anything meaningful. The movie has horrific sights like decapitated heads and tricky police politics simplified for mass consumption, but it just never really goes anywhere beyond facilitating plot twists, surprise deaths, and other crime movie ballyhoo.
Admittedly, the script has some amusing twists and Hillcoat shoots the hell out of the material. The settings have a palpable grime despite the famous faces who clearly went to air conditioned trailers between setups. There are tiny details in performances and set dressing that sell the environments and create a deeper world than the usual disposable crime flick. The director sells the big action beats and violent shocks with undeniable intensity. It’s a fully functional piece of crime movie entertainment, but the fact that the movie is so well polished and executed only makes it more frustrating when it turns out to be little more than another round of brooding bang-bang on the streets. As far as derivative crime movies go, it’s a good one, but John Hillcoat should be past this by now. At a certain point, you have to stop being a promising filmmaker and deliver on those promises. I still believe that Hillcoat will get there, but he’s running out of films to waste.