Review: Bullets & Bad Guys Make John Hillcoat's 'Triple 9' Another Win
by Jeremy Kirk
February 26, 2016
Australian director John Hillcoat has made a name for himself with unforgiving characters committing brutal violence amid some pretty bleak environments. With The Proposition and Lawless, he brought period-set grit to the screen and made the future even less appealing in The Road. The latest from Hillcoat is Triple 9, and it's the director's first opus of violence set in modern day. This fact doesn't keep the violence from being as cold-blooded as the director can make it nor the characters from being their typical, Hillcoat shade of gray. Triple 9 is a relentless look at the lengths to which evil men and women will go, and, though it never fulfills the hope of transcending the action genre, it satisfies the hunger for adult-driven entertainment with an edge. Just don't get attached to anyone.
Working from a screenplay by Matt Cook, Triple 9 centers on those doing good and bad in Atlanta, Georgia. A small band of bank robbers made of ex-military and corrupt cops is planning their latest heist for the Russian Mafia. Not that the head of the Russian family (Kate Winslet) is giving them any choice in the matter, but the task proves too risky for regular measures. The team concocts a plan to kill a rookie office (Casey Affleck) and commit the robbery while the entire city shuts down to attend to the 999 Officer Down call. As with any, good, crime thriller, if random acts of God and the actions of the investigating detective (Woody Harrelson) don't bring the team down, all the back-stabbing might take care of them.
Even with a relentless stream of double-crosses and shocking revelations, Cook's screenplay for Triple 9 is rather straightforward. His characters are rarely defined by anything other than their actions, and those actions consist of a slew of bullets more often than not. If the opening heist doesn't whet your appetite for the urban violence that is to ensue the chase and shootout on an Atlanta freeway will surely get the job done. Cook packs his screenplay full of colorful characters both moral and corrupt but much more so corrupt. Harrelson's detective acts as something of a mentor for Affleck's rookie, and the two seem to be the only players – besides the background women in their lives – who aren't shaded with the darkest of grays.
The team of thieves is as interestingly cast as it is written with Chiwetel Ejiofor playing a former soldier and the leader of the band of thieves. His character, though, is justifiably motivated. Winslet's Russian Mob boss has taken his son and promises to return him after the group can pull off their one, last job. Anthony Mackie and Clifton Collins, Jr. make up the corrupt cops of the team, Mackie's officer having just been assigned to partner with Affleck. Norman Reedus and Aaron Paul play brothers and the remaining two members of the team. Cook writes his characters with a healthy understanding of their reasons even if things rarely ever go according to plan.
Hillcoat, too, brings an apparent understanding to the characters who inhabit the ruthless world he creates. All of Triple 9's left turns and explosions into uber-violence are organically placed, each knife in the back naturally coming down one right after the other. In that way, Triple 9 never reinvents the wheel that is the modern, urban, crime thriller, but it does a damn fine job making that wheel spin.
There are instances of a more eccentric story at work here. Winslet, though immaculate with her thick, Russian accent and wardrobe of specifically crimson clothing, never bursts into hammy melodrama as you might expect. That is both a good and bad thing here, as Cook and Hillcoat's barrage of quirky, Atlanta characters give the city an unnerving and grimy attitude rarely seen outside of New York crime flicks from the 1970s. Michael K. Williams of "The Wire" and "Boardwalk Empire" fame makes a brief appearance in Triple 9, and, though his character is best left unrevealed here, there isn't nearly enough of him or the jarring theatricality with which his character embodies.
The back-and-forth between grounded and eccentric is easily smoothed over, though, by the phenomenal and varied cast at work here. Affleck's rookie is the most straight-laced of the bunch, but even he commits to a sense of slight, moral ambiguity in his character. Mackie and Collins, Jr. both bring solid and nuanced performances to the table, while Reedus and Paul pull off their respective roles with more over-the-top flash. Ejiofor combines strength with sympathy well, but Harrelson is the only one of the cast who achieves that perfect blend of morality and peculiarity. It remains to be seen whether his character's habit of smoking anything and everything he can get his hands on was present in Cook's script or if it that was something Harrelson, himself, brought to the table. Either way, it's one of several ticks that make Harrelson's character endlessly watchable.
Much like his character, there's very little in Triple 9 that doesn't play well. Hillcoat's latest is a palatable thriller of greed and dishonesty that is so good you're almost frustrated it isn't great. The director is capable of great. See The Proposition, still his finest hour, for reference to that. Regardless of the final results, though, Hillcoat remains a filmmaker whose body of work continues to grow with quality films. Triple 9, his first film set in modern day, delivers on the hard-hitting, fast-dealing, cringe-inducing thriller that keeps action fans going back to the theater. It just may not have you booking a flight to Atlanta any time soon.