Director John Hillcoat (“Lawless”) takes a page from David Ayer’s playbook with his dim perspective of law enforcement in the violent crime thriller “Triple 9”, which follows a gang of bank robbers embroiled in a heist that spirals out of control. A multi-character drama with talent to spare, Hillcoat’s foray into the urban jungle proves an invigorating contribution to the neo noir/action sub-genre, and is definitely worth a trip to the theater. A highly trained team consisting of a couple of ex-special forces guys (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Norman Reedus), two corrupt police detectives (Anthony Mackie, Clifton Collins, Jr.) and skittish fifth-wheel Gabe (Aaron Paul returning to “Breaking Bad” form as a junkie with a conscience) run the occasional job for Atlanta’s Jewish-Russian mafia. Squarely in the middle is Michael (Ejiofor), a weapons and tactics expert at the mercy of the frigid, mink-ensconced queen bee Irina (Kate Winslet), whose sister (a fleeting, scantily clad Gal Gadot) is the mother of Michael’s young son Felix (Blake McLennan). Michael seems like the type who was once a good man, but has become indebted to the wrong people. Irina, his soulless, bouffant-sporting puppet master, might as well sprout horns, she’s so evil.
The crew is tasked with snagging a safe-deposit box that theoretically will facilitate the release of Irina’s kingpin husband from some dingy gulag somewhere. A large sum of money is in the balance for the gang, but for Michael, cooperation determines whether or not he’ll ever see Felix again. After a narrow and messy escape (a booby-trapped bundle of cash explodes into a crimson plume that engulfs the getaway van in the middle of a crowded freeway), the package is delivered successfully, and everyone goes their separate ways. Lo and behold, Irina demands that they pull off a second job: the retrieval of a file that’s tucked away in some NSA compound that corresponds with the contents of the deposit box. (The particulars aren’t important, because I’m pretty sure none are given). They refuse, and shortly thereafter, one of the crew turns up as a bloody, asphyxiated corpse.
Hoping to avoid ending up in the trunk of a car with their teeth in a ziplock baggie, they comply. The big hurdle is how they’re going to get in and out with only a 3-minute window before the cops arrive at the scene. Enter straight shooter detective Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), a tough-as-nails ex-marine whose new partner Marcus (Mackie) happens to be one of the perps. Chris, a good cop and family man (Teresa Palmer plays his wife), could be their foil or their solution.
That’s where the 999 (code for officer down) comes into play, and this is where the moral spectrum of its characters comes into focus. When a cop goes down, every law enforcement in town responds–a perfect window for the crew’s smash-and-grab at NSA. From there, the film is fast-paced enough to muscle through some implausibilities (like the NSA facility being about as secure as a SuperFresh).
“Triple 9” boasts some great choreography, abrupt twists and a superb cast: Ejiofor is a strong presence as always, and Affleck gives his best performance since “Gone Baby Gone”. I haven’t even mentioned Woody Harrelson, who plays Chris’s off-kilter police captain uncle Jeff. He’s a pot smoking goof with a few great one liners and some surprises up his sleeve–though not a far cry from many of his other law enforcement roles. This is a terrific script from first-time feature writer Matt Cook, who clearly draws inspiration from Mann’s “Heat”, Scorsese’s “The Departed”, and even Ben Affleck’s “The Town”. A brutal tale with Hillcoat’s trademark style of violence, “Triple 9” is an unpredictable flick that evolves into a rapid fire succession of surprises and consistently exceeds expectations.
— M. Parsons