Ahh Triple 9, you promised so much. Cops, robbers, a director who does down, dirty and gritty with aplomb and an all star cast. On paper it was one of the films to look forward to the most this year. And while it’s by no means going to make any worst of lists it’s unlikely to make any best ofs either. But that’s not to say it doesn’t offer up something quite enjoyable.
When Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor) finds himself up to his eyeballs in debt to the Russian mob, led by Kate Winslet’s hissing villainess, he assembles his team to pull off a near impossible heist. What he soon realises is the only way to succeed in securing the loot is to create a Triple 9, the police call-sign for “officer down”. Thankfully on his crew he has dirty cop Marcus (Anthony Mackie) who has recently been partnered by hotheaded Chris (Casey Affleck). With Chris’ friend Jeffrey (Woody Harrelson) trying to track down Michael’s gang the collection of characters are on a dangerous collision course.
Director John Hillcoat has clearly been taking nods from the best when it comes to crime thrillers. Michael Mann, he behind Heat, Collateral, Manhunter and Miami Vice, is writ large on Triple 9. Hillcoat capturing that grimy underworld of a city. His colour pallet utilises deep reds over Mann’s regular blues but their impact is just as strong.
The opening set piece in particular feels immediately reminiscent of Heat’s iconic street exchange of heavy fire. Here, every bullet fired and car hit has impact, it’s the kind of impact that resonates, has you wincing and captivated by the thrill of the chase.
But while Hillcoat’s aesthetics are always a joy to watch Triple 9 is let down by one very simple fact: there are too many characters. Unlike Heat we’re asked to invest in a host of characters that rarely seem to have any morals we can truly associate with. Even the ‘good guys’ in the form of Affleck and Harrelson are deeply flawed and often unlikeable. That wouldn’t be an issue per say, especially given Ejiofor’s redeeming soft side, but it does leave you asking if you’re supposed to be routing for anyone in particular.
The results therefore are not unlike the pinnacle of crime TV shows The Wire but told over a much shorter time scale. Unlike that seminal show Triple 9 is never given the breathing room for us to relax into the world, to gradually get to know each character, what makes them tick and how they go about surviving in this dog eat dog world. The results are sometimes broad and occasionally overly detailed. Some key characters you want to know more about but are often given less information while other characters you long to understand better and they are sidelined.
A visually and often exciting thriller that never quite hits the highs you wants it to. Triple 9 keeps the attention but leaves you feeling like you’ve been robbed of something criminally good.