Nowadays it can seem like there are more films about cops and robbers than there are actual robberies. Starting with 1903’s The Great Train Robbery, there have been so updates and iterations that it seems impossible to find a new way to riff on them. Triple 9, the new thriller from John Hillcoat, somehow is suspenseful in more than one way. While there are way more bad guys than good guys, the conflict has nuance. Screenwriter Matt Cook keeps the plot off-kilter, so we’re never quite ahead of the plot to feel comfortable. The action feels plausible, as does the urban hell-scape where it takes place. Sporting a large cast of strong actors, this is a tough, this is a nasty thriller that’s devoid of bloat.
Triple 9 takes place in urban Atlanta, and Hillcoat films it so it looks more like The Walking Dead than a thriving metropolis. A bank robbery plunges us into the action; the robbers are silent, swift, and menacing. In its immediate aftermath, we see two of the robbers (Anthony Mackie and Clifton Collins Jr.) are police officers. Their leader is Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a brooding mastermind who works for Irina (Kate Winslet), a Russian mobster.
The bank robbery is only half of the operation: Irina wants Michael’s team to steal from a high-security facility, so they will need more time than usual before the cops arrive. The solution? The cops suggest they murder a fellow officer, since the ensuing “all hands on deck” response will give Michael team the window he need. They settle on Chris (Casey Affleck) as their fall guy, except the plan is trickier than they anticipate.
During an early car chase, there is a throwaway moment to Triple 9 that heightens its authenticity. A robber stands in the highway, firing into a civilian’s vehicle so that he can hijack it. The car indeed stops, but then the car behind it pushes it forward, so the robber is nearly run over. It’s a clumsy, plausible outcome, and yet I’ve never seen it before. The mix of hardened tactics and awkward mistakes creates a feeling of exaggerated realism; the surprise of dirty cops fit right into it. Cook’s dialogue is not hard-boiled, exactly, and instead the characters speak in the kind of terse shorthand that David Mamet helped make popular.
Still, the best thing about Cook’s screenplay is how maintains a sense of unease: we are not quite sure who deserves our sympathy, and while Affleck’s Chris is closest thing we have to a good guy, he’s clueless for most the film. Woody Harrelson pops up as Chris’ uncle, a fellow cop who strings the clues together, but even he is amoral and loathsome. Triple 9 accomplishes something tricky: it trusts we’ll stick with loathsome characters simply because we are curious how it will all work out.
In addition to a complex screenplay and multiple layers of deception, there are action sequences that are confident, tense, and workmanlike. Chris leads a tactical assault on a housing project, and Hillcoat shrewdly defines the sight-lines so that we feel unease every time the cops walk into another room or hallway. The choreography of the sequence is also interesting: Chris holds a riot shield, while two others follow immediately behind. This suggests a sense of physical intimacy, so that it’s all the more jarring when the violence devolves into hand-to-hand combat. The heist sequences are slightly more over-the-top: Michael uses inventive, sadistic methods of bending security staff to his will. The shrewd direction keeps the violence from veering toward exploitation, even if Hillcoat cannot help but indulge in one too many chases.
Triple 9 may be a pulpy B-movie throwback, yet Hillcoat has an impressive cast of character actors. Aside from the aforementioned names, Norman Reedus appears as Michael’s quiet accomplice. Michael K. Williams steals a scene as Sweet Pea, a transgender criminal informant who shares mutual respect with Harrelson’s character. Cook focuses more on plot than showy writing, so the actors are there for credibility more than anything else. Ejiofor is the only one who transcends the material: his icy composure barely conceals a hair-trigger temper. Unfortunately, the only miscast actor is Winslet. She is never convincing as an evil Russian ice queen, and her accent is even stranger than the one she sported for Steve Jobs. Winslet can be a commanding performer, although there is a reason this is her first time appearing as a villain.
Crime fiction has recently been stuck with loftier, with philosophical aspirations. The cinema TV anthologies True Detective and Fargo are ambitious, to varying degrees of success. They were both influenced by Martin Scorsese and Michael Mann, two hyper-masculine filmmakers who sought visual poetry among criminals. To its credit, Triple 9 is nothing like that. It has more in common with thrillers like Kubrick’s The Killing and Jules Dassin’s Thieves’ Highway, film noirs that focus the big score more than the personalities involved. Matt Cook’s delightfully nasty screenplay held my interest because, well, I had no idea where it was going. Hillcoat, who cut his teeth on small-scale work like The Proposition and The Road, shows he can manage a large cast and larger-scale action. Triple 9 will not win any awards, and much to its credit, it has no aspiration for them.