I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.
Bill Graham // Film Critic
TRIPLE 9 | 115 min | R
Director: John Hillcoat
Cast: Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Kate Winslet, Clifton Collins Jr., Woody Harrelson, Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus, Gal Gadot and Teresa Palmer
When things are moving at breakneck speed, TRIPLE 9 is one of the most confident and smooth films you’ll run across. The problem is that there is a lot of downtime. Despite the stars attached, the film by director John Hillcoat never really grasps hold as it should. The first half feels like it is missing large parts of the setup and the second half rarely pays things off in a satisfactory way. That’s a shame considering the talent involved. Violent and grim, this is a film that attempts to be darker than it actually is.
The issue from the outset is it never trusts subtlety. When we are introduced to Russian Jewish mobsters we see people tied up and bloody in a trunk. Not once. Not even twice. Multiple times. Why? Because they’re evil? Sure. Got it. Why do these cops work with the special forces crew? Money, of course. It’s the classic last job setup. One final gig to make everything right. But the film isn’t interested in exploring why they are in this mess to begin with. We are dropped in the middle of it and left to sort things out, an increasingly frustrating task when we aren’t privy to things until the audience is told them or still end up in the dark all together.
It’s nice to see Hillcoat work in the modern era space for a change of pace, bringing his sweat-stained and dimly lit vision to bear on the 21st century. It actually works and the action bits, something I thought would be a struggle initially, ended up being the reason one might recommend the film to a friend. There is a bank heist in the opening that shows bravado and lets each character have a moment where they show their personality despite being behind masks. There’s also some iconic camera work and production values as that initial heist goes awry and red smoke/dye starts spilling out.
The bad guys are as follows: special forces Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor); cop Marcus (Anthony Mackie); washout Gabe (Aaron Paul) and brother to former special ops Russel (Norman Reedus); and Detective Jorge Rodriguez (Clifton Collins, Jr.). Gabe is the loose cannon of the bunch–there’s always one–and it’s unclear why they couldn’t have found someone a bit more put together to do the initial heist. They are working to please Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet, all cleavage and moody Russian accent), the current leader of the Russian mob in town and wife of the man in prison in Russia that Vladimir Putin himself is scared of– key to make this point because that means he’s really scary.
That last job, though, as clumsily as it is pulled off, isn’t the actual last one. No. There’s one more before they get to ride off into the sunset. Instead they are tasked with something somewhat impossible. A 10 minute heist that is sure to attract not only private security around the facility but also local cops. How do they buy this much time when the average response is around three minutes? They want to pull off a 999 incident. That means officer down. In theory this ends up drawing the attention of the entire police force in the area towards one spot as they respond to help their fellow man and hunt down whoever hurt them.
The issue is that the mark, Chris (Casey Affleck), happens to be the new partner of Marcus, and the nephew of the lead Sergeant Detective Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson) that is investigating the crew. Marcus at first doesn’t find any issue in offing the cocky detective that seems to have moved from a peaceful division. But after a drug bust that ends spectacularly, second thoughts start to creep in.
But let’s back up and let me expand on the drug bust a bit. In it a drug task force, led by Chris and Marcus, is attempting to find one suspect in the middle of some projects. The way they go in is with Chris utilizing a full body detachable shield and a handgun while leading a handful of officers behind him Conga-line style into the close quarters of the apartment complex they are at. It’s an intense and visceral experience as we see them tactfully round corners and communicate like a special forces unit. Foot chases, shootouts, and more are all encompassed in the stomach-clenching sequence that last for a good 10 minutes or more. It’s in this moment that we really get to know Chris and see how tight the bonds between officers that work alongside each other end up becoming. It’s a highlight moment of the entire film and one I can’t help but wish was in the middle of a better film.
Because after that moment things really start to unravel. All the cliches come to bear and most of the twists and turns are more sighs than shocks. The standout really is Mackie who has the most to do with his role as he guides and watches over Chris initially. It’s within this film’s world that it seems like even the most put together people are on the brink of losing it all and are fighting, tooth and nail, to hold on. There is a sense that the film wants you to become paranoid for the main characters. But it never quite does enough to make you see past the cliches it is drowning in.
TRIPLE 9 showcases fantastic set pieces that allow us a peek into our characters. This isn’t action for action’s sake. There is a story being told throughout each heist and shootout. That’s why it’s such a shame the film really stumbles in the final third and especially during the end. I’m not even sure there is something bigger at work in the plotting outside of bad guys do bad things, regardless of whether they wear a shield or work for the Jewish Russian mob. Regardless, TRIPLE 9 is grim, dark, and full of cliches that weigh down the brilliant action beats that could have made this a surefire hit among cinephiles and even made a dent in the mainstream audience.