Triple 9 and all the images you see in this review are owned by Open Road Films
Directed by John Hillcoat
I had not even heard of this movie until I saw a poster for it at the theater. Hell, I don’t even think I saw a trailer for it before the movie came out! That seems kind of odd considering some of the actors they have in here such as Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, and Kate Winslet. Then again, the movie also has Casey Affleck, Aaron Paul, and Clifton Collins Jr, so maybe it’s not so much an under the radar hit and more of a lower tier movie that happened to luck out in the casting department. Still, with so little to go on as to what this movie was about, it definitely had the chance to surprise me and offer something unexpected. Is this a hidden gem that got sprung on us just as we were leaving February, or is this the just one more subpar mess that we have to deal with before ending one of the worst months for movies? Let’s find out!!
The movie follows way too many characters, but I’ll try to make it as clear as possible (definitely clearer than the movie makes it). You’ve got the leader Michael (Chiwetel Ejifor), the fuck up Gabe (Aaron Paul), the fuck up’s brother Russell (Norman Reedus), the bad cop Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and the even worse cop Franco (Clifton Collins Jr) who make up a team of five criminals that pull of heists I guess. In fact, the movie starts right as they begin their latest scheme which is to knock over a bank looking for something specific for their employers who I believe are Israeli mobsters led by Irina (Kate Winslet). Now the Israeli mobsters need this crew to pull of another job, but the job is neigh impossible in the time they would normally have to do it (three minutes before the cops come). Their plan is to cause a Triple 9 which is the nickname for killing a cop (radio code 999) at which point all the police in the city (the ENTIRE city) will converge on that location, and it JUST SO HAPPENS that Marcus has a new partner in the form of Chris (Casey Affleck) who would be perfect to kill because… reasons. Why would someone kill a cop that is so directly tied to them? Anyway, what the bad guys here aren’t aware of (or aren’t all the concerned about) is Chris’s uncle Jeffrey (Woody Harrelson) who’s investigating the bank robbery and is starting to pick up some clues. Not only that, but things begin to deteriorate between the bad guys and after something PARTICULARLY heinous happens to them, the fuck up starts to… well, fuck up. There’s also a subplot about a Mexican gang causing trouble in the city, something about Chiwetel Ejiofor’s son, and then Gal Gadot shows up a couple times to remind us that she can act even if Batman v Superman turns out to be a giant bomb. Can these guys pull off the heist without killing each other or getting themselves killed first? Will Casey Affleck survive to the end of the movie? Can someone get me flow chart for all this? I’m already confused…
You like your movies bleak? This may be the movie for you. You like your movies interesting on top of being bleak? Eh… then probably not. There’s a lot going for this movie from the action sequences to the overarching storyline and what’s at stake, but these are some of the most tiring, lame, and flat series of scumbags that you can spend time with. They didn’t need to try so hard to let me know that Crime Does Not Pay; it already convinced me when they showed how boring these losers are.
This is a film by John Hillcoat who’s only other film I’ve seen is Lawless; a much better movie than this, so maybe what made that one work was the writer Nick Cave (this one being this one coming from a first time writer Matt Cook). Both movies certainly have strong cinematography and I’ll give this one the leg up for having MUCH better shootouts as Lawless kind of dropped the ball on that just a tad. The bank heist in particular at the beginning is probably the best one on film since The Town with some very well thought out beats and very intense action during the escape. I mean, when we find out who these jokers are, it’s pretty unbelievable that THESE idiots managed to pull off a heist that well thought out (and actually get away with it when things start going to hell) but on its own it’s a damn good way to start out the film. There are two other similar scenes throughout that ultimately become the film’s highlights because there’s really nothing else carrying this along other than its solid cinematography and well executed action sequences.
There is nothing in this story that is adequately explained and the characters either do not make sense or are irredeemable douche bags (or are Casey Affleck), so you end up sitting there watching a bunch of dumbasses you don’t care about mill around for most of the running time before doing something REALLY dumb and then getting themselves killed. It’s a ticking clock movie, and yet they the outcome has all the dramatic weight of forgetting to pick up eggs at the supermarket.
We’ve got five guys in here who are a crew, mixed of ex special forces and cops (if I remember correctly) and while the movie does eventually give us a tenuous connection between them, their relationships are not adequately explored, nor are their motivations, save for Chiwetel Ejiofor but we’ll get into his subplot soon enough. Why are Anthony Mackie and Clifton Collins Jr bad cops? Why did Norman Reedus turn to a life of crime and get his dumbass druggie brother in on this? At least three have military training, but I don’t think that includes bomb making which is something we see them do a couple of times. The mob that the guys are working for kills off one of the crew, despite the mob wanting them to do another job, and it’s never explained WHY they did that. WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON IN HERE!?
The movie also feels built from disparate parts (or half-finished scripts) because while everyone else is doing a weak Copland rip off, Chiwetel Ejiofor is practically in a spy movie as his son is being held hostage by the Israeli mafia and is doing these crimes with his crew to get him back; plus I think there’s some money involved for the other members of his crew. First of all, the kid is a direct blood relative of Kate Winslet (the presumed head of the Atlanta branch) whose sister is the mother and to me that seems like a pretty big Mob no-no even for the Israeli mafia that, if my research is correct1, is ALSO structured by families. Second, I don’t know too much about the Jewish faith (Hasidic Jews in particular if the ones here are supposed to be that), but every single one of these dudes is sporting a Kippah at all times which seems less like a genuine expression of their faith (the Kippah is to be worn when praying, studying the Torah, saying a blessing, or entering a Synagogue2) and more as a clue for the audience to remind them that they’re Jewish. Even if some stricter orthodoxy advises them to wear it at all times (but doesn’t advise them not to be a party to heinous crimes up to and including murder), the woman they are working for is CLEARLY not on that level of orthodox as her head is never covered in the entire movie. I don’t even know exactly what they’re after as it seems that they had these guys rob the bank for a security deposit box in to get… something, and then they want them to take something from the Atlanta Homeland Security building which will work with the first thing, with the end goal of getting someone out of the Russian Gulag for… reasons. So with so much international intrigue at stake, they blackmail the baby daddy of the sister of one of their… commanders (I don’t know what hierarchy system they use in the Israeli mafia), to take his friends and rob a bank and a government building, leaving the success of this international operation ENTIRELY in their hands. In the hands of Aaron Paul. In the hands of Daryl Dixon.
In pieces, there are moments where the movie works, and not just the really solid action scenes. Anthony Mackie has a few good moments where he starts to doubt if he can take out Casey Affleck. Aaron Paul is pretty much playing Jesse Pinkman from season five of Breaking Bad, but it was good there and is… mostly good here. There’s a part in the movie where Clifton Collins Jr gets impressively intense and Chiwetel Ejiofor has a huge triumphant moment that works to somewhat close out his story. None of it fits together though and trying to put it all in one film just drags all the good points down, not helped by the fact that Casey Affleck’s character adds nothing to the story. If they made him less heroic and a lot stupider I think he would have worked, but he’s just not good enough in here to be the symbolic heart of the movie that his character is supposed to be; the ideal as it were for what good person in a shitty situation should be like. Speaking of that, there’s also another issue which I wouldn’t say is as blatant as some of the other issues here (at least compared to OTHER recent films *cough* Gods of Egypt *cough*), but there’s a pretty unsavory undercurrent of racism in this movie, from the bad guys the cops are trying to take down being Hispanic gang members, to all the dirty cops being people of color while the white dudes in the movie are easily portrayed as the most noble. You got dumb ass Casey Affleck being a straight arrow, Woody Harrelson being a shit bag but still an honest cop, and Aaron Paul being the bad guy with a conscious. From what I can tell, this movie is not based on a true story, but the Georgia drug enforcement agency is listed in the credits for their support on this movie, so there may be some truth to the way things play out in there (I have no idea how prominent Hispanic gangs are in Atlanta) so I won’t knock the movie down too many points for that. It’s just something I notice and is kind of off putting from a film-language standpoint where people of color are still getting roles as bad guys and gang members to play off of the white good guys. I will say that Chiwetel Ejiofor manages to bypass this for the most part, but that’s almost entirely due to how little we actually know about the guy despite being a key player in the OTHER movie within this movie.
This is a movie that deserves a much better script, as pretty much everything else here is well above what is called for from a typical cop drama. You’ve got some really great action set pieces, a wide range of actors who give solid performances (excluding Casey Affleck), and an over looming sense of dread and despair to punctuate the harsh realities of the situations many people find themselves in in real life. It’s just too bad that the script itself is full of uninteresting characters and outrageous plot points that completely destroy any tension or drama that the situations should be eliciting. That said; if you’re okay with some weak writing to instead focus on the filmmaking and the occasional action scene, then there might be something here for you. Not for me though as I’ll probably forget about this movie in a week or so. You’d probably be better off watching Sicario or even Hillcoat’s own Lawless. Say what you will about that film, Tom Hardy’s growly mutterings and Shia LaBeouf’s natural talent for douchebaggery at least gave you SOMETHING to remember.
1) Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israeli_mafia
2) Lorne Rozovsky http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/607780/jewish/The-Kippah-Skullcap.htm
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