John Hillcoat’s Triple 9 (2016) mixes good ideas and bad. It is well-cast and slickly directed, but it is also messily written. In many ways it is a solid pastiche: part-James Ellroy, part-Training Day, and part-Grand Theft Auto V. It also subverts audience expectations, but not necessarily in a manner or direction that the audience would prefer. There is some wonderfully bleak and cynical character work, but it is presented in a manner that effectively shuts women out of the story. The film is definitely better than its ambivalent reputation, but it is not some underrated masterpiece: while there is much to inspire, there is just as much that disappoints. These kinds of features are always tricky to approach. Triple 9 is a good film, and an entertaining one, but it involves realising that there was a better film to be made out of its various ingredients than the film we actually got.
A gang of thieves, comprising former Navy SEALS Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Russell (Norman Reedus), corrupt cops Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Franco (Clifton Collins Jr), and Russell’s drug-addicted brother Gabe (Aaron Paul), undertake a bank heist at the behest of Atlanta’s Russian mafia. Thinking their debt to gangster Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet) is paid, they are incensed to discover themselves drawn into a second heist: stealing critical documents from a Homeland Security vault.
An excellent bank robbery sequence launches Triple 9 as if it is a muscular, edge-of-your-seat action vehicle, using the same distilled crime aesthetic perfected by videogame Grand Theft Auto V. Both owe the same debts to the same classic features – Michael Mann’s Heat (1995) is an obvious antecedent – and use similar driving musical scores. It, and a subsequent run-and-gun shoot-out in the second act, make a promise that the film’s climax fails to keep.
Audiences will likely expect a grand finale. Not only do the existing showcase scenes give the impression that the film will conclude on something even better and larger, the second heist is set-up to specifically make the audience anticipate it. The heist will require the mother of all distractions, which is where the ‘triple 9’ of the title comes into play: deliberately shoot a cop on the other side of town, and Atlanta’s entire police department will rush to assist, leaving the DHS facility comparatively defenceless. It is a premise that promises much, but in choosing an alternative direction for the story the film manages to surprise and disappoint. What replaces it is interesting, but also rather messy. The film boasts a few too many characters; there is also Marcus’ partner and unwitting ‘triple 9′ target Chris (Casey Affleck), Chris’ uncle Jeffrey (Woody Harrelson), and local gang leader Luis (Luis Da Silva), not to mention brief and weirdly under-used appearances by Michael’s ex-wife (Gal Gadot) and Chris’ wife Michelle (Teresa Palmer). Bringing the narratives of all of the characters together takes time, and burns up a lot of audience engagement.
What the film does provide it provides well, with a nice focus on character rather than plot. It is a uniformly strong cast too, with standout work by Ejiofor, Winslet, Affleck, and Collins. The film works tremendously for much of its length, and it is only really in the third act that it properly struggles. It is a deep shame. You can see where the shortfalls are. It would not have taken much more to turn this half-decent action-thriller into a bit of genre classic.