Cops, robbers, cops who are robbers, the Russian mafia, vicious cartel members and a concept that screams a crime thriller to rival the greats. So why is it that Triple 9 never feels like a threat to the films it so desperately wants to aspire to? The key reason: it’s trying too hard.
Triple 9 starts well with a blistering bank robbery conducted by a group of thieves led by former soldiers Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Russell (Norman Reedus). The heist doesn’t exactly go to plan with Russell’s brother Gabe (Aaron Paul) taking more than he should but they get away even if they do set alcoholic detective Jeffery (Woody Harrelson) on their case. But it’s not the end of it with their Russian mob boss employer Irina (Kate Winslet) demanding they pull another job before getting paid. Realising the new job will require more time, dirty cop Marcus (Anthony Mackie) proposes they pull a Triple 9, a cop code that signifies an ‘officer down’ and will see all cops in the city flood to the scene of the crime. Said cop in the firing line is new to the precinct Chris (Casey Affleck) and before long the bullets and bad guys are aligning for all hell to break loose.
That’s a lot of plot to take in and while it’s always an interesting experience to watch it unfold you do often wonder who you’re supposed to be rooting for. Of course the ambiguity can be part of the fun but while all the characters, other than Affleck’s boy scout, are different shades of grey the film isn’t able to give them all the time to develop.
It wants to have that rich texture of Michael Mann’s Heat but it lacks the running time and immersive crime world to really suck you in. So while the likes of Ejiofor, Affleck and Mackie all give solid performances you are never able to fully invest in them. Because on many levels the film is juggling too many balls to let you focus on one. It’s an intriguing and often exciting story that isn’t able to hook you in the way you so desperately want thanks to the blur of plot and characters constantly jostling for attention.
Director John Hillcoat brings his typically visceral energy that has made him one of the most interesting filmmakers of recent years. His pallet is grungy grey, akin to TV’s The Wire, during daylight and all red hues in darkness. But like his last crime orientated outing, Lawless, Triple 9 always feels a little predictable if pretty to look at.
It packs a punch but Triple 9 fails to be a crime thriller to ever really thrill.