Directed by John Hillcoat
(19th February 2016 UK / 26th February 2016 US – Worldview Entertainment, Anonymous Content, MadRiver Pictures)
Written by Matt Cook
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Casey Affleck, Kate Winslet, Woody Harrelson, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Gal Gadot, Clifton Collins Jr., Norman Reedus, Teresa Palmer & Michael K. Williams
Synopsis: A gang of criminals and corrupt cops plan the murder of a police officer in order to pull off their biggest heist yet across town.
With the recent success of Deadpool, there have been some over-zealous film fans that have begun championing it as the reason for the existence of all adult-oriented films currently heading to cinemas across the globe. It’s certainly true that in recent years the muscular budgeted R-rated movie has become a rare breed, and audiences interested in that sort of content need to turn to independent cinema whilst the multiplexes overflow with comic book movies, teenage bait blockbusters, and children’s animated films – but as Denis Villeneuve proved last year with his superlative Mexican cartel picture Sicario, the great dark minds of cinema are still getting their films made.
Enter John Hillcoat, Australian director of The Proposition, The Road, and Lawless, who returns with Triple 9, his sixth feature length, with a stunning cast in tow. Audiences are accustomed to Hillcoat’s unique brand of desolation cinema, and here he turns his keen eye to the urban crime filled streets of Atlanta (clearly standing in for Los Angeles for tax credit reasons), turning destitute areas into a veritable wasteland that rivals the post-apocalyptic landscapes of The Road (with 100% fewer cannibals).
Hillcoat wastes no time in establishing his favoured mise-en-scène with the film’s opening credit sequence; a spine tingling montage of death and corruption, leaking into all of the cracks of the city’s crumbling facade. From there, it escalates to a bank robbery and an intense escape plan that goes wrong when one of the robbers gets greedy and steals tainted money, which causes a red smoke explosion in their getaway vehicle. The robbers’ reaction to the mistake is pure pandemonium: their van barrels down the highway, smashing into pedestrian vehicles before they abandon it, and with assault rifles proceed to spray bullets haphazardly at random civilians, creating a scene of white knuckle carnage that is as memorable as it is primal. Triple 9 comes out of the gate swinging, and is instantly memorable for it.
From there, the film effectively has the audience hooked, and first timer Matt Cook‘s script moves at a steady clip throughout, although it’s not without its problems. Triple 9 has a huge cast of characters, each of them played by an accomplished actor, and there’s a vast number of different relationship dynamics on display throughout. Cook’s script does a good job of laying the foundation in a believable and digestible format, but it fails at offering any semblance of depth. While the cast is both vast and tremendously gifted, most of them are just going through the motions. That’s not to say any of them give a bad, or even less-than-engaged performance, they’re certainly invested, but there’s just no material for them to work with. Sadly, many of the characters in Triple 9 are thinner than the paper the script was printed on.
Aaron Paul essentially plays a sweatier, longer-haired, less sympathetic version of Jesse Pinkman, the Breaking Bad character for which he is best known, while Clifton Collins Jr. and Woody Harrelson show up playing themselves. In fact, Harrelson’s role as a slightly unhinged cop with an alcohol problem is so far into the actor’s wheelhouse that the only way you could make it more obvious is if you replaced all of his dialogue with “Harrelson. Harrelson. Harrelson.”, like a cocaine-laced nightmare version of Being John Malkovich. Collins Jr. doesn’t fare much better, though it makes a refreshing change of pace to see the character actor take on a larger role, even if it is the same role we’ve seen him fill a dozen times before. Still, it’s infinitely better than Casey Affleck and Chiwetel Ejiofor, two immensely talented actors who end up crushed between the boundaries of their uninteresting stock characters. Teresa Palmer and Gal Gadot are also relegated to glorified set dressing, and Kate Winslet‘s Iranian-Russian-American mob boss is unconvincing and droll, with Winslet’s accent woefully inconsistent (much like her recent work in Steve Jobs – the fact that she’s been nominated/and has won awards for that performance is both confounding and a damning indictment of great roles available to women in mainstream cinema), made even more noticeable by the fact that she is surrounded by genuine Israeli actors (including Gadot). While it’s certainly not an easy accent to conquer, one would suggest she have a chat with her agent to avoid future embarrassment.
It’s Anthony Mackie who emerges victorious from the Triple 9 family picnic as the one actor that actually gets some meat to chew on, namely a conflicted corrupt cop wrestling with his conscience. While it’s not a substantial element of the script, Mackie has the natural talent to make it compelling with minimal effort.
In all honesty, it’s surprising that Triple 9 managed to attract such a brilliant cast, although it wasn’t without teething problems. It took a while for the film to get off the ground and the production was marred with problems, including a plethora of revolving cast members including Shia LaBeouf, Christoph Waltz, Charlie Hunnam, Cate Blanchett and more. Despite this, the final cast is absolutely stellar; it’s just a shame that they’re largely squandered.
However, Triple 9 is not a bad film. Hillcoat takes Cook’s generic script and turns it into a gripping crime saga. He and cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis (The Drop, Bullhead) squeeze malice and intensity out of every frame; towering rundown tenement buildings aren’t just artifacts of an underfunded and discarded lower class, but violent implements stabbing the sky with their ugly concrete shapes. Violence is framed in authentic and disturbing ways, and nudity is sexualised but bathed in a sordid red light that makes it feel toe-curling, not gratuitous. Triple 9 is all shades of grey, brightened up by its sparing use of blood, red smoke, and luminescent pink fingerprint dust. The bleakness of its world feels intoxicating, like a blanket of smog maneuvering ever closer to suffocate you in its grasp.
In particular, Hillcoat’s action sequences are worthy of note. Striking a balance between the hyper-stylized energetic viscerality of Michael Mann and the bleak nihlism of Villeneuve, Hillcoat’s pulse-pounding action sequences always feel tightly controlled yet enthrallingly chaotic. In fact, it’s the eponymous Triple 9 sequence where the disconnect between the quality of the director’s craft and the foundations of the script becomes most apparent. Superlatively directed but poorly written, Hillcoat is at constant war with his weak foundation. The sequence itself is genuinely unique; it spends an unthinkable amount of time demonstrating the city-wide effect of cops converging on the scene of a triple 9 (officer down), following Harrelson’s Detective Sargeant Allen as he barrels across the city in what can only be described as a vehicular rampage. The camera dances through this violent race and cuts between aerial shots to show the whole city being swallowed by the growing swarm of red, white, and blue, and the cacophony of hundreds of sirens wailing profusely. Allen is frantically on the radio, snarling and snapping, trying to find out if his own nephew (Affleck) is the succumbed officer in question.
This whole sequence is uniquely protracted, but executed masterfully, despite the fact that it is diminished entirely by counter-intuitive chronology. Unfortunately, the audience has already seen the ambush play out, so they are unable to relate to Allen’s emotional quandary. If we had followed Affleck at the start of the ambush (a scene that is beautifully shot and exquisitely handled), and then cut away to Allen, who hears the triple 9, it would be a immeasurably more effective moment.
This is indicative of Triple 9‘s chief problem: it’s a film stacked with cutting edge talent, both in terms of the cast and behind the camera, but it’s built on a rickety, weak foundation, making it a constant uphill battle to carve out a quality film. Simultaneously complex due to the number of moving parts in its constantly moving plot, but rendered inert by its thinly drawn characters and inexperienced writer, Triple 9 falls short of its goal as a landmark film of the modern crime thriller genre, and instead plays as more of a greatest hits of the 90′s, along with a few satisfying directorial twists.
Saying that, Triple 9 will have a lot to offer for genre fans, and it’s a gripping initial watch (right up until the anti-climatic abrupt conclusion), but one whose foundations don’t stand up to further scrutiny. Ultimately, a perfectly competent addition to anyone’s filmography, we should just expect more of Hillcoat and the cast he assembled.