A Gritty Police Heist Film That Earns Its Bonafides



Being that it is February, I had very little expectations for a gritty heist film featuring dirty cops and the Russian mafia.  Other attempts have been made to have a spiritual successor to the gritty police drama Training Day, but most have fallen short.  Most have come from Training Day director David Ayer.  Films like Street Kings, Sabotage, and End of Watch have had varying amounts of success, but most have landed with a resounding thud.  Now Director John Hillcoat, who brought us the gritty bootlegger drama Lawless, throws his figurative hat into the ring.

Lawless provides us a good template for Triple 9.  Lawless had a stellar cast featuring Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Jessica Chastain, Guy Pearce, Mia Wasikowska, and Shia LaBeouf.  Triple 9 does much the same and features Chiwetel Ejiofor, Casey Affleck, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Gal Gadot, Woody Harrelson, and Kate Winslet.

First time feature length film writer Matt Cook delivers a strong, straight forward script that keeps enough tension until the final frame, even if the story is pretty bare bones without all of the frills and twists that seem to be present in so many of the other films who seek to earn their “gritty” bonafides. That is not in any way a slam.

Triple9_1What February needs is a film that delivers the goods, which often is so rare.  The script knows that the goal is to provide a compelling reason to stick with the story for a couple of hours and entertain the audience, and in that I was pleasantly surprised how “into” the film I was by the time the climax of the story was being played out.

Triple 9 shows the story of a mercenary named Michael Atwood (Ejiofor) who is doing a job for his girlfriend’s (Gadot) sister Irina Vlasov (Winslet) who is heading up a branch of the Russian mafia in Atlanta, Georgia.  Her husband is locked away in a Russian jail, and so she contracts Atwood to deliver to her information that will secure his release and get him safely to Israel where they have the means to consolidate their power and free him from the confines of his prison.  Winslet is brutal in this role, and really does a great job flipping the typical mob boss role to a female version that is just as tough and nasty as any male counterpart in the  past.  John Hillcoat has just shown Hollywood that it is okay to break the stereotypes on who typically fills these type of roles.
It also shows a boldness in allowing his talented cast to fill roles that show more range than they are typically allowed to show.  Atwood’s crew consists of dirty police officers Marcus Belmont (Mackie) and Franco Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr.), along with Russell Welch (Norman Reedus) and his brother Gabe (Aaron Paul).  While Aaron Paul has played shifty characters before like his portrayal of Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad, putting one of the Avengers as a dirty cop who may be working to undercut his new partner Chris Allen (Affleck) flips the narrative Mackie is building with his Marvel role and allows him to stretch his wings and get into a meatier role.
Even Gal Gadot who will be portraying Wonder Woman later this year in Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, plays a role that puts her on the far polar opposite of her new superhero role. Ejiofor, who was so brilliant in 12 Years a Slave in how he created a sympathetic look at of man enduring a literal 12 year hell exposing the evil of slavery, becomes a more modern embodiment of evil who consorts with compromised people and other evil people on a daily basis.Despite my praise for this film, there is plenty to find fault with.  The straight-forward script, while holding the tension and earning the gritty bonafides of films like Lawless and Training Day, is very simple.  It is good at masking that simplicity in its set up, but by the time the story is in play, there is no hiding how easily telegraphed some of the narratives are in how they are going to play out, especially as it relates to Mackie’s relationship with his partner, played by Casey Affleck.  What works, despite this, is that writer Matt Cook doesn’t spend time trying to fool you that this is not happening but create enough tension within the obvious that you still have a vested interest in watching how this plays out, with enough indications that no one in this story is really safe because the gritty portrayal of this crime world. The film also suffers in the climax by building up how difficult Atwood’s final heist is going to be throughout the film but only having them face very minimal resistance compared to the buildup.  It seemed like a shortcut to get to a secondary narrative thread, that they obviously felt was more important.Triple9_5


“Triple 9″ (999) is the police code for “officer down” where the entire police department descends on the location of the shooting to avenge their brother in arms, and it is the title of this film because it is the means by which everything in the story will hinge.  The entire notion of brotherhood in the police department is examined through the compromised characters that stand in sharp contrast to Casey’s boy-scout character who is not naive or blind to the corruption around him.  Even his loving uncle (Harrelson), a fellow police officer is not without his demons.  But despite the grit, the compromise, and the corruption, this film is still not afraid to call good “good” and evil “evil”.  There is no gray area in terms of right and wrong in this film, and that kind of clarity stands out in a month of film releases that is typically as gray and bland as the winter clouds that hang overhead.  For those wanting a gritty action film before the onslaught of action films in the summer film season, this may be first glimpse of Spring.