Saturday, February 27, 2016
The new cop film Triple 9 (the title refers to police radio code for the shooting of an officer) is an entertaining enough way to pass two hours, but it also raises a number of unusual questions. Did writer Matt Cook set his story of Russian mobsters and dirty cops in Atlanta, or does the film take place there because the production received generous tax incentives? Does shooting in Atlanta come with a coupon for a free supporting turn from Walking Dead star Norman Reedus? How did director John Hillcoat persuade Kate Winslet to play a Russian mob queen? Most importantly, who’s the main character? Hillcoat begins the film with a bank heist that leaves it to us to figure out who the players are, but it’s clear that Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is the one in charge. Atwood and his ex-military buddy Russell (Reedus) are running things, but the crew is filled out by cops Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Franco (Clifton Collins Jr.) as well as Russell’s ex-cop brother Gabe (Aaron Paul in full-on sad sack mode). Spoiler alert: Even heavily armed bank robbers have trouble in Atlanta traffic.
The goal of the heist is the contents of a safe deposit box which will be delivered to Irina (Winslet), whose jailed husband needs it to secure his release. Did we mention that Irina’s sister (Gal Gadot) is the mother of Atwood’s young son? All of this plot highlights the main problem with Triple 9, which is the film’s lack of a center. An obvious inspiration for Triple 9 is Michael Mann’s 1995 Heat, but where that film had DeNiro and Pacino as two equally obsessed opposite poles, Hillcoat has to find room for Atwood, Marcus, Gabe, as well as Marcus’s new partner Chris (Casey Affleck) and Chris’s detective uncle Jeff (Woody Harrelson). The germ of the movie that Triple 9 wants to be lies in Harrelson’s turn as a dogged detective who appears to be slowly losing a battle with addiction. It’s a terrific performance of a piece with Harrelson’s best character work, but the film keeps pushing him aside in favor of scenes of Chris with his doting wife (Teresa Palmer). Casey Affleck isn’t bad here, but he doesn’t have much to work with. Chris is ex-military, just like Atwood and Russell, so what keeps him from going dirty? Triple 9 doesn’t have time to answer. The film is so busy that it doesn’t allow the pleasure of watching Chris or Harrelson’s Jeff figure things out, because we’re already so far down the road of watching Atwood and the others plan out another robbery that serves as the film’s climax. That robbery is staged and shot with great precision, as is an earlier shootout and chase through a series of low-rent apartments. All of the craft that Hillcoat and the cast bring would matter more if the characters were doing more than servicing an overcrowded story.
A clearer example of what’s wrong with Triple 9 can be found in Kate Winslet’s performance as Irina, a woman who thinks nothing of using her nephew as bait in order to get what she wants. Winslet gives a master class in what happens when great actors play roles in genre movies; she makes Irina incredibly specific, both ruthless and bored out of her skull at the same time. (What does Irina do in Atlanta on weekends, go to the Aquarium?) So why isn’t Irina the least bit memorable? Because Hillcoat and Cook can’t quite figure out just what story they want to tell. At times Irina appears to be sitting around just waiting for the film to happen to her. The well-cast Triple 9 will make a great Sunday afternoon cable movie someday, but it could have been quite a bit more than that.