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Script Needs Assistance

Open Road Films
 115 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed byJohn Hillcoat 
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson
Triple 9

Whatever other strengths and weaknesses Australian director John Hillcoat may have, you have to give him credit for one thing. Like Woody Allen, he knows how to attract talent to his projects. Not the type of above-the-credit big names that call attention to themselves and single handedly skyrocket the budget, but the type of hardworking, often up-and-coming actors who invariably improve whatever films they make. In his last film, Lawless, he surrounded nominal star Shia LaBoeuf with Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Guy Pearce, Gary Oldman, and Mia Wasikowska, to name a few. Ironically, LaBoeuf dropped out of Hillcoat’s current film, Triple 9, but his replacement, Casey Affleck, has perhaps a better surrounding cast. Yet, despite an overabundance of genuine acting talent, Triple 9 has to rank as a major disappointment.


Whenever great talent and a good director flop this miserably, the culprit is usually the script, and that’s certainly the case here. Triple 9 is a gritty crime drama that undoubtedly was sold to its cast by describing it as a walk down the morally ambiguous gray area between police and various sorts of evildoers. Unfortunately, in this case, “gray area” is a synonym for jumbled murkiness, as described by first time screenwriter, Matt Cook.


Triple 9 starts out with a bang, literally, as a group of ex-Special Forces criminals, led by Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor), teaming up with dirty cops Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie) and Franco Rodriguez (Clifton Collins, Jr.), pull off a precision daylight bank robbery in downtown Atlanta. The robbery goes off without a hitch, but in the aftermath, an exploding dye pack in the getaway van results in a major shootout on a busy street.


It turns out that the object of the robbery wasn’t money, but some McGuffin-like information kept in a safety deposit box at the bank. A Russian mobster’s wife, Irina (Kate Winslet), is calling the shots for the crew, thanks to the fact that Atwood fathered a son with her sister, and the mobsters won’t let Atwood near his son unless he cooperates. In the aftermath of the first robbery, Atwood learns he has to pull off a second robbery to get additional information, this time from the vaults of the Department of Homeland Security.


Knowing that pulling off a robbery like this will require a major distraction, the thieves come up with the idea of using a Code 999 (officer down) to pull away all the police in the area at the time of the robbery. To do so, they need a victim, and one conveniently presents himself in the person of rookie detective John Allen (Affleck), Marcus’ new partner. That decision doesn’t sit too well with the morally conflicted Marcus (for whom robbery is one thing and cop killing another), and it also makes the robbery considerably more complicated, since John’s uncle Jeffrey (Woody Harrelson) is the detective in charge of investigating the first robbery.


Triple 9 has been in development since 2010, at which time its script made the “Black List,” an unofficial list of the best non-produced scripts of the year. Other films on the list that year included Argo, American Hustle, The Butler, and The Hunger Games. The talent that Triple 9 has  attracted has been tremendous; as one name star (Cate Blanchett) dropped out of the project, another (Winslet) took her place. And the type of characters undoubtedly envisioned in the script, morally ambiguous, sometimes conflicted, always on the edge, would naturally attract the caliber of actors associated with the film.


But somewhere along the line, something went wrong. Actually, the characters in the movie aren’t conflicted; they are simply underwritten and muddled. The audience learns more about Michael Atwood in the police description of him once they identify him than from his 30 minutes or so of screen time. Not even a gifted actor like Chiwetel Ejiofor can bring that character to life. Aaron Paul plays another one of the bad guys, an ex-solider with substance problems who, thanks to some really poorly written scenes, comes off as a pale copy of Paul’s character on Breaking Bad.


Triple 9 simply has too many characters with too little screen time, a problem that is exacerbated by wasting valuable screen time of plot threads that go nowhere. Irina is shown, not just to be Russian, but Jewish Russian (she wears a Star of David necklace and her front of operations is a kosher meat business). Director Hillcoat spends ten minutes making and reinforcing that point, but the only payoff in the film itself is a single joke by Woody Harrelson, in which he refers to the mobsters as the “Kosher Nostra.” In fact, the entire motivation behind Irina’s actions, involving getting information that will help get her jailed husband in Russia released, is never clear. Alfred Hitchcock, master of the McGuffin, would have dealt with this entire bit of business in less than a minute.


When Triple 9 does get down to action, it’s as good as any similar film in recent memory. In addition to the opening heist scene, there’s an extended chase and shootout at a housing complex midway through the movie that recalls the claustrophobic feel (thanks to handheld camera work) of The Hurt Locker and American Sniper. The final set piece, cutting between the second robbery and the attempted cop killing, pales a bit in comparison to the first two sequences but, in any other movie, would be a highlight. Certainly, as an action director, Hillcoat has more than established himself.


With so many good actors in the cast, it’s hard not to find performances to admire. The two who shine are Casey Affleck and Woody Harrelson. Affleck is the closest thing Triple 9 has to a hero, and his solid performance (on top of a similar one in The Finest Hours last month) should get him some better paydays. As for Harrelson, Woody is just being Woody here, and he has by far the bulk of the movie’s punchlines. His character nuances don’t get explored very much (he’s an alcoholic), but he does get to snap off a number of one liners and chew a lot of scenery.


Doubtless, Hillcoat and screenwriter Cook were trying to emulate Michael Mann’s Heat, and, to the director’s credit, Mann himself would have been proud of the major set pieces in Triple 9, but in every other department, the new movie is a woefully pale copy of Heat. Most directors dream of working with a cast like Hillcoat has, but the script manages to keep most of the cast in check and confuse and bore the audience at the same time. Triple 9 won’t be the worst movie of the year, but it’s likely going to represent the biggest waste of acting and directing talent.    

Read other reviews of Triple 9:


Triple 9 (2016) on IMDb