Crime films love finding the loopholes in the police force or justice system that they can base a story around. Most of the time they would never work, but these kernels of ideas can often give an otherwise pedestrian idea an extra little kick. Just such a loophole is at the centre of ‘Triple 9’, the latest film from acclaimed director John Hillcoat. However, just because there’s something neat at the centre of a film doesn’t always save it from being a disappointment.
A group of criminals and corrupt cops (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Clifton Collins Jr, Aaron Paul and Norman Reedus) have just completed a major robbery for Russian mob boss Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet), only to be tasked with an even more difficult assignment. If they don’t complete it, there will be consequences, so in order to get it done, they have to be creative. They know that if a cop is shot (a 999), all police in the city will go straight to the shooting, leaving them free to do the robbery. And they have the perfect victim in Officer Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), a new cop on the scene with important connections, whose murder would give them the distraction they need.
It’s certainly a neat little package screenwriter Matt Cook has put together for ‘Triple 9’, and with Hillcoat at the helm, there’s a promise of something special on offer, but unfortunately the film never eventuates into anything of real substance. The opening robbery sequence is beautifully executed, a testament to the clarity and energy that Hillcoat displays when at his best. Yet once the story kicks into gear, it quickly becomes convoluted and unfocused, filled with endlessly morose characters that are never that easy to warm to. Cook throws way too many moving pieces into the mix, and while Hillcoat makes a valiant attempt to control them all and keep them in line, the narrative and character threads quickly become too tangled. Sure, the idea of staging a 999 is clever, but the film has little else to say other than offer an interesting scenario. A lot of energy is spent crafting the characters, including a second act that seems like it should belong to another film, but the characters aren’t likeable or interesting enough to warrant that much attention. There’s also little to differentiate ‘Triple 9’ from other run-of-the-mill crime films thematically, seemingly content with the tired "honour among thieves" thing we’ve heard over and over again. The filmmaking is assured and confident, but without clarity of intent, the film just seems half-baked.
Unfortunately the film never eventuates into anything of real substance.
This fault in the storytelling likewise affects the performances. No one in the film does a bad job (how can it when it has just an accomplished cast?) but no-one stands out either. Kate Winslet is probably the most enjoyable to watch, but this has more to do with the novelty seeing her playing a villain and... well... the fact that it’s Kate Winslet than anything to do with the film itself. The weakest link is Aaron Paul, but all he’s given here is another surly drug-addicted youth that’s barely a foot away from his career-making character in 'Breaking Bad'. He’s the most extreme example of typecasting which has almost all of its cast playing characters we’ve seen them play before, from Casey Affleck’s surly mumbling cop to Chiwetel Ejiofor’s tortured criminal to Woody Harrelson’s boozy unkempt detective. They’re doing their best, but there’s not much you can do when the material itself isn’t offering you anything.
'Triple 9' only feels like a missed opportunity because John Hillcoat had done such exceptional work with 'The Proposition' (2005) or 'The Road' (2010), and this film seems like such a step in the wrong direction. Everything about this film feels like it’s five steps behind the rest of its genre; a clever idea without substance when other films have been able to marry the two. 'Triple 9' is entertaining enough, but too confusing to really land itself and too unclear to leave any lasting effect. Sometimes a clever idea just isn’t enough to keep a film going.