“The monster has gone digital,” warns Woody Harrelson in a fashion that only Mr. Harrelson can. As bedraggled detective cleaning up the mess of a bank manager whose vault was just not only breached in a daylight heist, but documents of his families whereabouts are left behind by the thieves as a threat. Triple 9 is a gritty fusion of the dirty cop drama, and the ‘one last job’ thriller. Mostly it feels like the last hurrah of the ensemble heist film. With GPS, closed circuit cameras, and other omnipresent technologies, pulling off a smash-and-grab bank job seems as foolish as grabbing a few strapped stacks on impulse on the way out the door only to find them loaded with dye packs.
John Hillcoat, the hard-boiled Australian behind gritty outback western The Proposition, apocalyptic father-son survival tale The Road, and family bootlegger drama, Lawless, is determined to make his audience wallow in the complex cesspool of crime and law-enforcement of inner city Atlanta. The gangs are bad, at one point a trio of severed heads sit idly on the hood of a classic automobile, but the militarized police force is worse. Hillcoat has always been interested in the messy outcomes of complex (and not so complex) masculinity, and he has a fine ensemble of bold character actors, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Clifton Collins Jr. and Norman Reedus, a squad consisting of active and ex-police and marines who are in deep with, of all things, an orthodox Jewish faction of Russian mafia.
Sporting Star-of-David bling and exceptionally big hair, Kate Winslet’s thickly accented Irina Vlaslov is tougher than any of these compromised men as she tightens the screws on in a way that is reminiscent of Kristin Scott-Thompson’s angry-icicle matron in Only God Forgives. She has leverage on these men in a manner too convoluted to get into here, but suffice it to say that the strength of Triple 9 is that of a pot-boiler par excellence. As the plot vacillates between criminal brotherhood and domestic drama, neither in great detail, there is nevertheless an undertow towards finding out what is going to happen next.
As Harrelson’s pot-smoking, half-drunk super-cop offers advice and sniffs the air for the schemes of dirty cops, Ejoifor tries to get his Ex (a wasted Gal Gadot) to share custody of their son, and Paul continues to break bad, it is Casey Affleck who quietly steals the film as a rookie cop that is somehow both naive and world-weary (welcome to the 21st century folks.) In a different film, Affleck would be front and centre, here he blends into the background until he does not, his performance is a coup of sorts, a combination of acting talent, and directional choices.
There are some who might suggest that this would all work better in the ubiquitous long-form TV format, but I disagree. Sometimes there is a case to be made for a smaller dose of something. Triple 9’s familiar, yet akimbo, clusterfuck of organizations and individuals (with a dash of geopolitics?) has just enough visual panache – a grimy 35mm aesthetic with occasional splotches of bright pink – combined with its ensemble of abundance to pass muster as termite art. It is the kind of adult entertainment, along with the far more thoroughbred Sicario and far, far more abstruse The Counselor, that has been on the endangered species list from movie studios for some time. It is well worth spotting these rare beasts in the wild before they are gone.