Australian director John Hillcoat (The Road) certainly likes his films mean and moody, a trend that continues with promising thriller Triple 9.
It’s a movie that’s locked, loaded and raring to go from the off, and that so closely resembles Michael Mann’s contemporary classic Heat on first inspection that expectations are raised accordingly.
A story of dirty cops and robbers set on the seamy streets of Atlanta, Hillcoat’s sixth feature (after the intermittently entertaining but muddled Lawless) stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Terrell Tompkins, the leader of a criminal collective for hire, made up partly of corrupt police officers. The gang narrowly escapes the opening bank job following a messy but visually arresting highway shootout, as crimson smoke billows from their getaway car and their clothes are sensationally stained.
Mistakenly believing their work to be done, the gang (which also includes the suitably scuzzy trio of Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus and Clifton Collins Jr) deliver the loot but are denied payment and are instead coerced into an even more risky follow-up heist.
Wielding the authority with some aplomb is Kate Winslet’s Russian mob boss Irina, who is trying to free her incarcerated husband by ruthlessly exploiting her connection to Terrell; he has a young son with her glamorous, indolent sister (played by new Wonder Woman Gal Gadot – who will make her debut in the upcoming Batman v Superman movie, but has nothing to do here beyond strutting and pouting).
Closing in on their dodgy dealings is Woody Harrelson’s grizzled, inebriated detective. His rookie cop nephew (an impressive Casey Affleck) has unknowingly been partnered with a member of the crew (Anthony Mackie’s Marcus) and becomes a target when the gang resort to desperate measures to create a diversion to draw police attention away from their activities.
A striking use of red references the blood ties that bind and compromise, but Hillcoat’s latest fails to adequately flesh out any of the key players, with the characterisation cursory and the film short on impact, depth and insight into motivations. It also lacks the ferocity and idiosyncrasy of Hillcoat’s best work (The Proposition, Ghosts… of the Civil Dead).
Although the story, from screenwriter Matt Cook, twists and turns obligingly as the double-crosses rack up, it never once feels wrenching or surprising. Furthermore, it positively pales in comparison to the greats of the heist sub-genre like Rififi, Reservoir Dogs and the aforementioned Heat, producing few moments to truly treasure. And, if Winslet gives it some welly as she flexes the villainous muscles she showed off in the Divergent series, she neglects to bring the requisite steely-eyed menace, wrestling with an accent as alarming as her shoulder-padded suits.
Sporadic directorial swagger – particularly in some tensely handled action sequences – and the remainder of the high-calibre cast (Harrelson in particular can do this in his sleep) ensure that events stay solidly watchable, even if the characters remain frustratingly unknowable. Triple 9 is an entertaining distraction or a significant disappointment, depending on the height of your hopes; it makes some of the motions of a heavyweight crime film but there isn’t much power behind its punches.