All-star crime thriller Triple 9 was so promising

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Casey Affleck, Kate Winslet, Aaron Paul and Norman Reedus co-star in a slow-burn heist movie that looked so good.

Triple 9
Anthony Mackie and Casey Affleck

2.5 star rating

My favourite kind of film is a slow-burn crime thriller, particularly if it was made in or hearkens back to the 1970s. This is not, categorically, the genre that produces the best movies, but rather the ones that I am most consistently interested in seeing. The problem with this is that it’s a rather popular genre that produces many, many terrible movies in a year and also one that other movies can easily be mistaken for.

I was convinced that John Hillcoat’s Triple 9 was that kind of gritty thriller, a neon-hued and blood-spattered throwback to the days of Charley Varrick and The French Connection. Alas, Triple 9’s influences are a little more contemporary: in fact, the most surprising thing about the whole shebang is that it was made entirely without the involvement of prolific tough-guy auteur David Ayer (Training Day, Sabotage, End of Watch).

A former military contractor named Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor) finds himself deep in with the Russian mob. At some point, he fathered a child with Elena (Gal Godot), the sister of the powerful and ruthless Irina Vlasov (Kate Winslet) who operates the North American wing of the mob while her husband rots in the gulag. The relationship between Michael and Elena is long dead but Michael still finds himself crushed under Irina’s thumb, running complex heists with a gang comprised of two former cop brothers (Norman Reedus and Aaron Paul), a current homicide detective (Clifton Collins Jr.) and a patrol cop named Marcus (Anthony Mackie).

When they’re tasked with a nearly impossible heist of documents that necessitates at least 10 minutes of manoeuvre time before the cops arrive, they settle on an imperfect solution: they’ll arrange for Marcus’s new, wet-behind-the-ears partner Chris (Casey Affleck) to get gunned down — a 999 officer-down call is enough to send the entire police force looking for a cop killer, allowing them to pull off the job.

Add to that the fact that Chris’s uncle (Woody Harrelson) is the head of the Major Crimes unit, that Paul’s character has severe addiction issues and that Atlanta continues to be a hotbed of crime even when the people tasked to protect are busy committing crimes themselves, and you’ve got yourself quite a powderkeg. Despite the fact that Mackie and Affleck’s characters are given adorable moppets (and a trusting wife played by Teresa Palmer, in Affleck’s case) to care about, there’s not much emphasis placed on character development in Triple 9. Its script is all about how skillfully the film can juggle roughly 900 moving parts at once in a story where double-crosses and unforeseen circumstances occur every 10 minutes.

Norman Reedus, ?, Aaron Paul and Ejiofor on the set
Norman Reedus, Clifton Collins Jr., Aaron Paul and Ejiofor on the set

Triple 9 has the benefit of assembling an incredible cast and a talented director to play around in seriously substandard material. Director John Hillcoat (Australian) and cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis (Belgian) seem somewhat obsessed with the otherness of America and of the South, depicting the streets of Atlanta with an immediacy that’s simultaneously otherworldly and photorealistic. All bars are dives awash in bleeding neons; all homes are shabby and messy, even if you’re the kingpin of the Russian mob. For all of the effort by the creative team and the actors (who put forth varying levels of capital-A Acting, ranging from the even-handed Ejiofor to Winslet chewing the scenery in bright-red velvet pantsuits and a glass-shattering Russian accent), Triple 9 amounts to very little.

The influence of the aforementioned Ayer looms large in the film’s constant tough-guy dialogue, its extravagant villains, gritty action scenes and single-facet character development (Harrelson is an alcoholic; Affleck chews a lot of gum; Paul is a jittery drug addict). Ayer’s films range from the terrific (End of Watch) to the terrible (Sabotage), but all of them are about masculinity and the way it operates in positions of power. Perhaps what makes Triple 9 feel so anonymous is that it’s not really about anything besides the complex system of narrative pulleys and levers that leads to three or four pretty good action set pieces.

Back when the writers’ guild went on strike in 2007, many studios rushed films into production, fearing that the strike might go on for so long that it would completely paralyze production. A-list actors signed on to less-than-formidable projects in order to get some work in the can beforehand — the result was a lot of movies that just slipped through unnoticed, rarely terrible but half-formed at best. Triple 9 feels most of anything like one of those: a film full of promise with enough to attract talent that hopes the film will go through a couple more passes before they start shooting. I can’t surmise what actually happened, but Triple 9 is simply talented people doing perfectly mediocre, middle-of-the-road work. ■

Triple 9 opens in theatres on Friday, Feb. 26. Watch the trailer here: