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Triple 9

D: John Hillcoat / 115m

Cast: Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Woody Harrelson, Kate Winslet, Aaron Paul, Gal Gadot, Norman Reedus, Teresa Palmer, Clifton Collins Jr, Michael Kenneth Williams, Michelle Ang

Another script liberated from the Black List (this time from 2010), Triple 9 reaches us after having been optioned back in 2012 and with John Hillcoat firmly attached to the director’s chair. Back then, Shia LaBeouf was in place to play the lead, and Nick Cave was providing the score. But funding proved to be an issue and the movie languished in development hell until 2014 when financing was found and distribution rights were secured as well. Before then, LaBeouf left the project and was replaced by Charlie Hunnam, who in turn was replaced by Casey Affleck. During pre-production, casting choices also included Cate Blanchett and Christoph Waltz in the roles eventually taken by Kate Winslet and Woody Harrelson. And Nick Cave left as well, to be replaced by Atticus Ross.

All this is mentioned because Triple 9 is a movie that could and should have been better than the finished product. Whether or not it would have been with the talent proposed above we’ll never know, but upon consideration it’s unlikely it could have been any less disappointing. For a crime/action/drama/thriller with a top-notch cast and a director whose previous movies include The Proposition (2005) and The Road (2009), Triple 9 never really gets to grips with its own storyline, or makes the relationships between the characters at all convincing.

Triple 9 - scene3

The plot revolves around the efforts of a Russian mobster’s wife, Irina Vlaslov (Winslet), to free her husband from prison. In order to achieve this she hires a group of men consisting of three criminals – Michael (Ejiofor), Russell (Reedus) and his brother Gabe (Paul) – and two corrupt cops – Marcus (Mackie) and Franco (Collins Jr) – to steal a safety deposit box from a bank vault. This they do, but Irina refuses to pay them because what was supposed to be in the box isn’t there, and instead she insists that they have to take on another mission: the theft of data about her husband from a government storage facility.

In order to do this successfully, Marcus suggests they employ a triple nine scenario, an officer down situation that would see all other available officers sent to that incident’s location. He chooses his new partner, Chris (Affleck), to be the fall guy for their plan, and he begins to set things in motion. Using a local gang member as a patsy, Marcus arranges for Chris to be at an abandoned housing project on the day of the theft, but his plan doesn’t work in the way he’d hoped: a triple nine call does go out over the air but it isn’t Chris who is the officer down. Meanwhile, Michael and Franco retrieve the data from the storage facility, but what follows is a series of double crosses as everyone involved in the theft acts in their own, often murderous, interests.

Triple 9 - scene2

By the time these double crosses occur, the average viewer may well be wondering if they’re going to have anyone to root for. Certainly, Matt Cook’s well-regarded script seems hell-bent on eliminating as many of its lead characters as it can, and it may come as a surprise to discover just who is still standing come the movie’s finale, but with most of said characters getting what they deserve, each demise carries with it an increasing sense of ennui. It’s simply too difficult to care about any of them, whether it’s Ejiofor’s earnest gang leader, or Harrelson’s rule-bending detective. There’s not enough investment in any of the characters for an audience to identify with them or feel sympathetic towards them. Even Chris, with his arrogant sense of right and wrong, comes across as the kind of guy you’d avoid having a drink with.

There’s also the issue of the various sub-plots that are threaded throughout the movie, from Michael’s attempts to secure custody of his son – he just happens to have had a relationship with Irina’s sister, Elena (Gadot) – to Detective Allen’s (Harrelson) investigation into the bank robbery. While these and other sub-plots link together, they do so haphazardly and often without any sense that they’re always operating in the same milieu as the main plot or storylines. And it doesn’t help that, ultimately, the data in the storage facility (and the release of Irina’s husband) is treated like a McGuffin, used to drive the story forward but having no relevance over all.

Triple 9 - scene1

With the script and the drama proving too unwieldy and convoluted – the lengths Marcus goes to in setting up Chris being shot take up too much of the running time and seem unnecessarily complex – the characters are reduced to loosely sketched mannequins, moving around and reacting to things as the whims of the script dictate. The final half hour should have most viewers scratching their heads in amusement at the clumsy way in which Cook tries to wind things up neatly and with a bow on top. Instead of providing the audience with a satisfying and thrilling ending, the movie fizzles out and ends with a whimper and not a bang. It’s a movie that starts off promisingly with a well-staged bank robbery and getaway chase, and ends with an unlikely (and dramatically inert) confrontation in a car park.

Thankfully it’s not all doom and gloom, though that’s definitely the world the characters’ inhabit. Against the odds there are good performances to be had, with Ejiofor and Mackie giving their characters a far better grounding than the script allows them, while Winslet exudes icy menace with almost every glance. Affleck and Harrelson work well together, and there’s sterling support from Paul as the gang member who develops a conscience when confronted with the reality of the triple nine scenario. Fighting against the material, Hillcoat does manage to imbue proceedings with a nervous energy, even if he’s not able to be consistent, and the action sequences, even if they are reminiscent of Heat (1995), are still rousing enough to impress. And finally, there’s Nicolas Karakatsanis’ superb cinematography, which adds a febrile intensity to Hillcoat’s nervous energy, making the movie a pleasure to watch for its visuals if not its story.

Rating: 5/10 – with precious little back story for any of the characters, and a sense that Cook’s screenplay needed another pass, Triple 9 is a hard movie to get to grips with; stubbornly lacking in focus, it unfolds with all the inevitability of a tragedy but without the emotional content that would make it all the more rewarding.