Director: John Hillcoat
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Casey Affleck, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Clifton Collins Jr., Woody Harrelson, Kate Winslet, Norman Reedus, Gal Gadot, Teresa Palmer
MPAA Rating: (for strong violence and language throughout, drug use and some nudity)
Running Time: 1:55
Release Date: 2/26/16
Review by Mark Dujsik | February 25, 2016
Triple 9 feels like a movie in which the screenwriter forgot to fill in the blanks. It possesses the template for a story about people, who have been forced into doing what they otherwise wouldn't do, facing crises of conscience over their planned actions—or not facing them, in certain cases. The stuff in between the broad strokes of that template, though, is notably absent.
It's baffling, really, that this movie bypasses the exact beats that it needs for the material to really click. It doesn't have a complicated plot, so there are minimal scenes in which the characters explain what is happening or will happen. It doesn't overwhelm us with action sequence after action sequence, so there is plenty of time spent with these characters in quieter moments. It has a talented cast, so we assume everyone involved would like the chance to stretch those acting muscles.
There's simply nothing challenging about this storytelling. The screenplay by Matt Cook takes us from one plot point to the next, holding our hand the entire way, lest we miss the characters' shifting loyalties and suspicions. The action sequences are competently mounted by director John Hillcoat, and one of them—a mid-point raid on an apartment complex—is even more than competent. The actors are fine, although they really don't have anything more to do than to put on their best tough-guy routine. The only variation is whether the characters are corrupt or virtuous.
The story opens with a daring, daylight bank robbery that spills out on to the streets of Atlanta. The sequence seems to be following a familiar path until a paint bomb fills the escaping van with a cloud of red mist. For a brief moment, we might think the movie has something unexpected in store, but it doesn't last for long. Bullets fly. The van explodes. Everyone escapes without any real consequences from the minor hitch in the plan.
That's an accurate description of the course of the rest of the plot, really. As the team of robbers plan and execute their next—and, they hope, last—big heist, there are some slight stumbling blocks, but everything keeps moving—just with fewer players on the board. This is, after all, not a movie that wants to complicate things too much.
The team is a group of current or former police officers and retired soldiers who are joined together by uncertain bonds. The head of the group is Terrell (Chiwetel Ejiofor), whose son is being held by Irina (Kate Winslet). She's wife of an infamous Russian mobster and the sister of the boy's mother Elena (Gal Gadot).
The rest of Terrell's team are Marcus (Anthony Mackie), Jorge (Clifton Collins Jr.), Gabe (Aaron Paul), and Russel (Norman Reedus). Irina's endgame is the robbery of a MacGuffin from a Department of Homeland Security building, and the guys decide that the best way to give themselves the time window necessary to pull off the heist without any police response is to kill a police officer.
Marcus figures that his new partner Chris (Casey Affleck), an eager and no-nonsense upstart, is the perfect candidate. While all of this is planned, Chris' uncle Jeffrey (Woody Harreslon, who barrels into scenes as if he's in a completely different movie, which at least gives the material a much-needed kick in the rear) puts together the pieces to figure out who robbed the bank.
Some of the characters are more conflicted about the plan than others, although that hardly matters in any way other than providing a brief bump in the road. Some of them last longer than others, although that also doesn't matter. In a key scene, a main character is shot and presumably killed, but when one thinks about the circumstances, the death doesn't matter. The plot would move forward if either of the central characters in that scene was killed. The characters aren't just expendable in terms of how underwritten they are. The screenplay offers no reason to care about these characters, even on a basic level of whether they live or die. They are, at times, also expendable in the fact that any of them could disappear and nothing would change.
They're here to serve the plot. Even in that regard, they are essentially interchangeable, save for pair of good cops, who spend the third act trying to solve a mystery to which we already know the answer. Hillcoat and cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis shoot multiple scenes in all-encompassing darkness, as if the director is trying to compensate visually for the lack of any shadows within the characters. He's much better in staging the movie's handful of action sequences, although they're also mostly generic. The raid on the apartment complex, though, plays out in such a way that the participants are peeling away at layers, as they move further into a space that seems limitless in its potential for threat.
The movie moves at a quick pace, but that might not be a net positive here. There's room for much more in Triple 9—a sense of the moral conundrums, the weight of decisions, or these characters as more than pawns.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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