There’s more than enough sound and fury in John Hillcoat’s (Lawless, The Road, The Proposition) fourth film, Triple 9, an Atlanta-set bad cop urban actioner, to fill three or four sub-mediocre, straight-to-VOD bad cop/crime thrillers. It’s also the perfect example of “checklist screenwriting” (bad cop edition) this year, from the Good Cop/Golden Boy, to the Perpetual Screw-Up/Tweaker/Ex-Cop, to the Ex-Merc on a Mission, to the Super-Corrupt Cop with a Sociopathic Streak, and finally to the over-the-top, helmet-haired Russian (Jewish) Mafia Boss Played by a Slumming Academy Award-Winner. Lines get crossed, ethics/morality compromised, ultra-violence erupts periodically, and a vision of cities as urban hellscapes gets reaffirmed by the time the end credits roll on Triple 9. It’s almost enough to sit up and applaud Hillcoat’s Sisyphean efforts. Almost.
With the exception of Kate Winslet’s over-the-top, helmet-haired Russian Jewish mob boss, Irina, every performance in Triple 9 never strays from the grounded realism we’ve come to expect from aforementioned gritty urban actioners. Winslet may stray into over-the-top, scenery-chewing territory, an obvious sign that she’s at least enjoying her foray into non-Oscar-bait filmmaking, but she’s only one out of a half-dozen characters who could have easily carried Triple 9 on their own. Instead we get the hotshot, incorruptible good cop, Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), his new, semi-guilt-ridden partner, Marcus Atwood (Anthony Mackie), his ethically and morally compromised (but not too ethically and morally compromised) detective uncle, Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson), and a completely corrupt, sociopathic homicide detective, Jorge Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr.).
Triple 9 doesn’t stop or end with good/bad cops. An ex-Special Forces operative turned mercenary, Terrell Tompkins (Chiwetl Ejiofor), actually takes center stage for most of Triple 9’s running time. Indebted to Irina, Tompkins masterminds a first-act heist Hillcoat shoots and edits with maximum, suspense-building efficiency. Tompkins crew includes Russel Welch (Norman Reedus), an old mercenary partner, and Welch’s younger brother/tweaker/screw-up, Gabe (Aaron Paul), along with Marcus and Jorge, the latter two presumably motivated by the promise of easy money. Why Marcus and Jorge turned to crime or became corrupt remains one of the mysteries Triple 9’s screenplay repeatedly sidesteps before leaving it completely unanswered. Regardless of their motivations, they certainly want to get paid and understandably balk when Irina refuses to pay, pushing Tompkins and his crew to undertake one more, presumably last score for her (unlikely, given genre tropes/conventions).
The second heist poses serious logistical problems for Tompkins and his crew. Robbing a bank in broad daylight poses certain challenges, all of them surmountable, but robbing a heavily guarded Department of Homeland Security building poses an entirely different set of potentially insurmountable problems, leaving one character to suggest the “triple 9” of the title, an officer down incident that will lead the city’s finest to abandon preexisting obligations to help an officer in apparent need. Not surprisingly, even considering a triple 9 causes friction inside Tompkins’ crew, primarily from Gabe, an ex-cop, but it’s not enough to halt Tompkins’ plans. He wants out from under Irina’s thumb and he’ll do practically anything to get there, placing him squarely in anti-hero territory (if not an outright villain).
With so many characters, motivations, and subplots, it’s not surprising that Triple 9 feels both too long and too short, too long because we’ve seen these plot turns and machinations countless times before, too short because practically each character in Triple 9 could appear in his or her own standalone film. The constant pressure to advance the plot(s) within a two-hour running time (where, for once an extra half hour or 45 minutes would have helped) means the characters are drawn in the broadest strokes and the actors have to make do with minimal screen time, telegraphing their characters’ choices and inner lives as bluntly as possible. It’s a credit to the cast that the performances in Triple 9 (minus Winslet) never get too broad or slip into caricature, though one or two others come precariously close.
Hillcoat has little patience for character-building scenes or discussions of morality and ethics, instead focusing his considerable filmmaking skills to orchestrating the opening and closing heists, plus a tactical incursion into a drug dealer’s adobe and later, a tense, tension-filled hunt-and-chase between a cop and a gangbanger inside an abandoned public housing project. That scene inside the abandoned public housing project, while impressively choreographed, also serves as an example of supposedly smart characters suddenly losing dozens of IQ points as the screenplay demands. Presumably, the poor neighborhoods we see, plus the housing project, are meant as Hillcoat’s attempts at socio-political commentary, but whatever commentary Hillcoat intended Triple 9 to make remains frustratingly oblique and, at best superficial. By the time we get to the second scene of a phantom back seat passenger surprising a tactically trained cop character, it’s well past time to throw your hands up in the air and accept Triple 9 as nothing more than a super-slick, superficial urban actioner ultimately signifying nothing.