Director: John Hillcoat
Stars: Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor
3 (out of 5) Globes
There are way too many great actors in “Triple 9.” Ditto plot, ditto vomit-y violence, ditto insights about America, ditto talent behind the lens. Is this the “Avengers: The Age of Ultron” of crime movies, which is to say a movie overstuffed with pure stuff? Or is it jam-packed on purpose? It could be that this seriously clogged thriller is a film about the fog of war at home, in which every character is in too deep to know they’re doomed pawns. Or it might simply be a pack of gangland cliches peopled with too many name stars the film doesn’t know what to do with— not even Kate Winslet as a Russian mafioso sporting tall, lacquered ’80s hair and Star of David bling.
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It’s really a bit of both, though “Triple 9” clearly aspires to an epic like Michael Mann’s “Heat.” It even opens with its own knockoff of that film’s galvanizing heist centerpiece. The robbers aren’t mere career criminals: their ranks are filled with corrupt cops (Anthony Mackie, Clifton Collins Jr.), a disgraced cop (Aaron Paul) and a traumatized ex-mercenary (Chiwetel Ejiofor). They’re not merely greedy; they’re stuck in a Faustian pact with Winslet’s fearsome/hammy Irina Vlaslov. Perhaps only the fresh fish noble cop (Casey Affleck) can stop them, provided he can untangle the Christmas light bundle of a plot.
By the time “Triple 9” settles it reveals itself it to be simple, in more ways than one. It can be surreal seeing fine actors playing thin caricatures, including Chiwetel Ejiofor, tasked with doing little but playing against type as a tough-as-nails badass. On the flip side, Aaron Paul’s Gabe is simply a more messed-up Jesse Pinkman: a junkie screw-up, this one with hair out of a Britpop band. And then there’s Woody Harrelson, who simply slurs his speech more than usual as another reprobate cop, this one into coke and American flag ties.
Or is everyone merely flaunting their lack of actorly ego? They’re all committed to the vision of director John Hillcoat, who, as in “The Proposition” and “The Road,” likes his films bone dry, pitiless and nauseatingly brutal. The characters in his film are dangerous and desperate, and Hillcoat doesn’t sugarcoat them; even when Ejiofor’s character is saddled with a young kid who’s been kidnapped by Irina’s clan as collateral, his plan to get her back doesn’t play out in noble fashion. Hillcoat’s vision of Atlanta is one of aggressively tattooed gang leaders and decapitated heads resting on car hoods, where the threat “We train dogs to f— our prisoners” barely registers amidst the din.
Though it wants to be “Heat,” it’s a “Heat” that’s missing several key appendages. At a hair under two hours, “Triple 9” often feels edited within an inch of its life, as though it was hacked up by execs as nasty as anyone onscreen. It barely has room to breathe, except when it occasionally does. It knows to deliver the sporadic killer set piece, from the mayhem of its two big heists to a mid-film police raid, which finds Affleck’s Chris leading a line of cops through a drug house, looking like human train snaking through tight quarters. It doesn’t have much room for character moments, but it does find room, sometimes mere inches, for commentary on modern crime. It even has quiet empathy for people who’ve been tainted by the game, from soldiers who came home from war to find few worthwhile opportunities to seasoned policemen, who know that simply arresting every drug pusher won’t ease the problem. You just have to sometimes knife through the dense thicket to get to the good stuff.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge