Triple 9 is another star studded effort from John Hillcoat and while the set pieces work the shabbiness of the film is barely holding it together.
Triple 9, 999, is the radio code for “Officer Down” and getting one of these called out on the police dispatch becomes an intricate part of the plan for a group of thieves. These thieves are under the thumb of the matriarch of the Atlanta Russian Jewish mafia, and their dynamic allows for some crossover with the local police force as well. The two outsiders of these groups are a fresh transfer to the detective branch and his bending the rules uncle who is a lead detective who happens to be investigating the aforementioned crooks. Things get sticky pretty quickly when the new transfer gets targeted for the 999 and the mob starts tightening the screws on the crew to finish their job.
It’s rare to walk out of a film wishing it was twice as long, but Triple 9 might have really benefited from a longer cut. The scope and cast of the film are enormous, but the script/edit we get here doesn’t really try to dive into the background of just about anyone. The details remain fairly surface level, as Hillcoat hopes his stars can give the characters the depth you need to care about what’s unfolding on the screen. And they do, but some are more successful than others.
The film’s biggest issue is that there is just too much going on and not enough time to sell some of the angles the film wants us to consider. For starters, Casey Affleck plays the new detective transfer and we just never get enough time with him with his family or his work relationships to really make those relationships sing. Affleck has the chops to make us care, but I would have loved to of had a few more scenes with everyone, it would have brought some actual depth to him and the main players he interacts with. Everyone could have used an extra beat or three to flesh each other out and that space could have also been used to make things flow a bit more coherently.
The flow feels off partially because Hillcoat’s set pieces are so long and well done. It’s a blessing and a curse for the viewer as the set pieces suck you in and put you on the edge of your seat, but when most of the key players are sitting out the drama you almost forget some people still in the movie. I literally thought to myself, “Oh yeah, he’s in this movie,” after a one set piece half way through the film and that character we cut back to is arguably the main character of the film. That’s another issue, the film never feels like it knows which character it wants us to really care about. Maybe the likability of the actors is obscuring the opinions we are supposed to be having, but the POV of the film shifts so quickly, and randomly, I think the edit/script can also be blamed for disorienting the viewer. None of this ruins the film, it just points to the shabbiness that holds Triple 9 back from being something really special.
Hillcoat’s set pieces go a long way to keeping the movie working, but the cast is also just as responsible for the film feeling as successful as it does. I mentioned how Affleck makes his thin character ultimately work through his acting abilities, but this is pretty much true across the board. Kate Winslet’s villainous mob boss is barely anything on the page, but she gives the part some gravitas and fun by just going for the over the top angle the role allows for. Chiwetel Ejiofor gets the most meat of any of the characters and he makes good on the part by earning our sympathy and being a threatening presence when he needs to be. Woody Harrelson’s drug slinging detective is almost too much of a cartoon, but I think the film’s tone barely allows for his performance to work. Gal Gadot is good in the brief moments we see her, but, like everyone else, we don’t get enough of her and her kid. Clifton Collins Jr. also brings the sleaze in another delightful turn from him. Some actors aren’t quite as successful, Aaron Paul seems to be content just riffing on Jesse from Breaking Bad, but the script doesn’t give him much to work with. Anthony Mackie is also seems miscast, as he can’t overcome his charm and be the badass the part needs him to be. Finally, Michael Kenneth Williams kills it in his one scene, and might be my favorite performance in the film.
Triple 9 might not be the film it wants to be, but it is a thrilling cops & robbers ride nonetheless. The set pieces are excellent, the cast makes the most of their script, and the film never slows down from start to finish. That doesn’t mean the film couldn’t have used a little breathing room, which would have led to deeper characters and more room for the actors to really make this film something special. This is one of those films where a three-hour version sounds like something you’d really want to see. Still, the version John Hillcoat gives us still works, it’s just a shame it didn’t work as well as it could have with the talent involved.