A new film from Australian director John Hillcoat should be reason to celebrate. In 2012, he made Lawless, a novelistic Prohibition-era tale of corrupt cops and honest criminals. His 2006 Outback-set The Proposition was as much horror flick as brutal revisionist Western. In between, in 2009, he went ultra-post-apocalyptic in the harrowing The Road. This is a filmmaker who smashes stereotypes in well-explored genres and makes us see familiar stories from new angles. He makes B movies seem like prestige dramas.
So what the heck is up with Triple 9? How did Hillcoat manage to make an urban heist thriller feel so generic? How did he manage to render his terrific cast — which includes such luminaries as Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Winslet, and Woody Harrelson, and others well on their way to similar stardom, like Casey Affleck and Anthony Mackie — as characters too unlikable to be genuinely engaging, but not complex or twisted enough to be intriguing? Is it all due to newcomer Matt Cook’s script? That’s not a good enough excuse. There are certainly moments in Triple 9 that are superbly tense, dripping with anxiety. But then they’re over, and we’re left with a hollow emptiness. Historically, Hillcoat’s films have been haunting: They linger with you long after the credits have rolled. Yet I’d all but forgotten Triple 9 the minute it ended.
There seems to be an intense effort, early in the film, to keep certain aspects of where the story is going to go and who the characters are under wraps, as a way of generating suspense, but if they were meant to add up to anything once revealed, other than cheap twists — never happens. (This may be why its marketing gives away so much of what the film itself holds in reserve: because it doesn’t serve the purpose it was meant to serve. Or maybe it’s because most trailers give away too much these days.) The opening scene, for instance, depicts an Atlanta bank heist by a very disciplined group of bad guys — played by Mackie, Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus, and Clifton Collins Jr. — led by Michael (Ejiofor), who seems to know a lot about police procedure, timing their incursion with police-response times. But they’re undisciplined enough to have within their crew someone who’ll be distracted from the target — they’re after the contents of one specific safe-deposit box — to grab a bag of cash sitting nearby, which has a dye bomb inside. The bomb goes off at precisely the wrong time during their getaway. It’s a visually exciting sequence — unlike some later on, when Hillcoat’s cinematic discipline disappears in favor of frenetic frenzy — but we’re left wondering if we’re supposed to be rooting for these guys, or hoping they get caught. Or we’re sitting in a dark room, wondering why someone made a movie about them at all.
That question is never answered. Not when the woman they were working for, Russian mafia boss Irina Vlaslov (Winslet), refuses to release them from her employ until they do another, much bigger, much more difficult job: steal incriminating documents from a Homeland Security building. The docs contain intel that will secure her mobster husband’s release from prison. (Winslet’s accent is shaky, but it’s great to see her playing a ruthless, coldhearted villain.) The question is not answered by Jeffrey, the hard-bitten cop investigating the bank job (Harrelson), nor his cop nephew Chris (Affleck), whose new assignment in Atlanta’s drug-war war zone coincidentally connects him in an improbable way with the criminals. (Affleck is fantastic here; Chris is really the only character with any nuance, and Affleck makes the most of it, shaping a smart performance out of scant material.)
Hints of significance hover over the action: something, perhaps, about overly militarized police here; something else about the restlessness of amped-up military contractors over there (Michael and some of his gang were once mercenaries); maybe a hint of exasperation with cop culture and overblown declarations of brothers-in-arms-ness? But nothing coalesces. Triple 9 is as quick and loud and violent as that dye bomb in the bank bag, but it washes away with no effort at all.