Triple 9 opens on a meeting in a car in an underground location. The participants are a mix of shady cops and ex-marines, shrouded in darkness, the occasional facial feature barely illuminated by a red light outside. The three men in the car, Terrell (Chiwitel Ejiofor), Gabe (Aaron Paul) and Marcus (Anthony Mackie) are going over their planned bank heist. Their four man crew (the fourth being Norman Reedus’ getaway driver Russel) will enter the bank in central Atlanta, sweep through the place, get what they want and leave before the police can arrive. There’s just one problem: no-one’s told these guys there in a second-rate double-cross thriller with pretensions. Haven’t these guys watched Scorsese or Mann? If they did, they’d know this just can’t end well.
The oeuvres of Martin Scorsese and Michael Mann are just two figures in whose shadow Triple 9 skulks. The heists and police procedural aspects are steeped in a moral turpitude that’s nothing new to director John Hillcoat. Granted, Triple 9 doesn’t share or need the same level of bloody-minded decay and destruction as The Proposition or The Road, but it can walk the walk as well as talk the talk. The opening credits establish the cops and robbers in this narrative web; at one point we see mob boss Irina Vlaslov inspect a couple of bound soon-to-be corpses in a car boot. Irina is played by Kate Winslet, chewing the accent and clearly having a lot of fun. Her performance is one of two sources of relatively levity in Triple 9, the other being Woody Harrelson in a typically focused-yet-relaxed drawl as Detective Jeffrey Allen. He’s investigating how Terrell and his crew committed their broad-daylight heist, and for whom they committed it. Allen can’t see how they’re linked to Irina yet, but the film will go to great lengths to resolve itself, even if it takes all too quick a route to get there.
Triple 9 has ambition, but we’ve visited this territory before; there are Training Day-esque crooked cops (no-one plays these kinds of guys quite like Clifton Collins Jr.), a Russian mob straight out of Eastern Promises, and a surfeit of character arcs and plots to try to juggle. Writer Matt Cook is aiming for the grandeur of Heat, but Triple 9 has been compromised somewhere along the way. It clocks in at just under two hours, but there’s an inescapable feeling of lacking. When Irina sends Terrell and co. on another job, more personal stakes get involved. Irina blackmails Terrell into doing her bidding with their familial bond (Gal Gadot gets little to do as Terrell’s ex/Irina’s sister). Moreover, the team decide that they need to pull a ‘Triple 9’ in another part of town (shooting a cop in the line of duty) to distract from their heist elsewhere, and Marcus nominates his new partner Chris (Casey Affleck) as the target. It’s difficult to place whether the script or an overly-tightened edit is to blame, but as enemies turn on allies and vice versa, it’s difficult to muster much enthusiasm. Too many characters are scrambling for oxygen, and while there are solid performances aplenty, there’s nothing in the screenplay to make most of them stand out. Hillcoat at least delivers crunchy action, with a midsection raid on a drug-dealer’s hideout making for riveting viewing. Still, something with this much talent and determination to punch above its weight should be more memorable. By ticking a few too many procedural boxes, Triple 9 sells itself too short.