Packed with nearly two hours’ worth of nonstop action, director John Hillcoat’s “Triple 9” is a madcap thriller brimming with dirty cops, Russian mobsters and gruesome gang violence, all set in Atlanta, Ga. Boasting a star-studded cast including Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Winslet, Aaron Paul, Anthony Mackie and Woody Harrelson, the film benefits from its terrific action sequences, but is ultimately weighed down by an overly complicated plot and bland dialogue.
Written by Matt Cook, “Triple 9” follows a group of corrupt policemen and criminals who work together to pull off dangerous heists for Russian-Israeli crime lord Irina Vlaslow — a stand-out performance from Winslet. In order to save her husband from prison, the mafiosa blackmails her own personal police cartel to access files that will result in his freedom. The group, three cops and two brothers, must distract local officers while they sneak into the city’s Department of Homeland Security. To do so, they must enact a “triple 9” — 999 being the police code for a downed officer — to throw authorities off their trail. The target: Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), a straight-laced newcomer to the Atlanta police unit.
While the plot is somewhat muddled and unoriginal, Nicolas Karakatsanis’ cinematography and the wealth of action sequences provide a great source of entertainment for the thrill-seeking viewer.
The opening scene alone is worth the price of admission, featuring an elaborately choreographed bank robbery carried out by the gang’s leader Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his associates. A frantic car chase ensues, and the resulting pileup and highway shootout is as marvelously filmed as it is bloody. There are scenes of graphic violence throughout the movie, and Cook doesn’t hold back on the gore, subjecting the viewer to splattered brains and blown-off limbs.
The high quality of the acting overshadows the complexity and confusion of the film’s plot. Winslet revels in the darkness of her role, and Aaron Paul is compelling to watch as he struggles with inner conflict and depression following the death of his brother (Norman Reedus) at the hands of Vlaslow. Paul’s character, Gabe Welsh, resembles his prior role as Jesse Pinkman in “Breaking Bad” — a confused criminal with moral intentions. Mackie delivers another impressive performance as deceitful police officer, Marcus Belmont, who has to betray his partner to play a role in the 999 scheme.
Unfortunately, these stellar actors are hampered by bland dialogue and poor character development. Although Cook attempts to intricately weave together the characters and their respective stories, the old screenwriting adage of “show, don’t tell” must have slipped his mind, as critical details are revealed over pithy dialogue and short phone calls. More is revealed in a 30 second phone call than in seven minutes of arguing and fighting.
In an attempt to be relatable, some of the characters and plot twists strike a little too close to home. Gratuitous violence on behalf of the cops, coupled with a negative portrayal of stereotypes makes “Triple 9” a source of debate. Considering the controversies over the lack of diversity in Hollywood productions, some of the themes in “Triple 9” remind viewers all too well of the domestic issues the country still faces, especially within the police force. Additionally, the male-dominated cast overshadows the only matriarch — played by Winslet — in the film, whose role should be highlighted instead of hidden.
Despite the star-studded cast and brilliant action sequences, “Triple 9” lacks the sophistication of many other crime thrillers like “The Town” or “The Departed.” Its slow-moving dialogue and over-complicated plot are offset by the stunning violence and constant action, but these qualities alone are not enough to save the film.