You might consider “Triple 9” the mirror image of “Ocean’s Eleven.” Instead of elegance and humor, it’s a heist movie that emphasizes seediness and violence. It’s hard to imagine a picture that’s more of a wallow in corruption and nastiness than this. Presumably writer Matt Cook and director John Hillcoat intend it to be a cinematic slap-in-the-face, a wake-up call to the gruesome reality of modern urban life, but instead it’s merely depressing, much as Ridley Scott’s “The Counselor” was—but with less bombastic visual panache than that awful film.
The plot is disclosed gradually, with the viewer needing to pay close attention to piece everything together. But in the end the intricacy merely camouflages the fact that in the end the narrative is not only oppressively unpleasant, but pretty silly. (NOTE: Spoilers follow.) It begins with an Atlanta bank robbery that segues into a freeway chase during which a red smoke bomb explodes in the lead getaway SUV, creating a massive traffic jam during which the thieves carjack another vehicle and get away. We soon learn that the driver outside who keeps tabs on police response is Russell Welch (Norman Reedus), while the five masked men who actually do the job are Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Russell’s younger brother Gabe (Aaron Paul), Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie) and Jorge Rodriguez (Clifton Collins, Jr.). It’s also revealed that Michael, who’s put the job together, is a Special Forces veteran who’s now an Atlanta cop. Marcus and Jorge are corrupt cops too, while the Welch brothers are Atwood’s former comrades-in-arms. In the course of the robbery, the crew makes a point of getting not only money, but a very particular safety deposit box.
That box, it turns out, is the key to the whole affair. It contains diamonds, and is in the name of Vasily Vlaslov, a Russian mobster incarcerated by Putin. Atwood has been forced to organize the theft on orders of Vlaslov’s’ wife Irina (Kate Winslet), who’s running the family’s Russian-Israeli organization from an Atlanta home in her husband’s absence. (The mob’s cover is a Kosher food company.) She has control over Michael by reason of the fact that he shares a young son he dotes on with Irina’s curvy sister Elena (Gal Gadot).
To protect the boy Michael now has to do another job for Irina, and to show the possible consequences if he refuses, she has Russell brutally killed. That understandably sends Gabe into an emotional tailspin, but the others reluctantly agree to participate. The target is a Homeland Security Building in Atlanta where a file on Vasily will be stored for 24 hours, which Irina hopes to use to force the Russians to agree to release her husband to Israel, where presumably he will be released. It’s a well fortified place, however, so to pull off the heist the diminished crew will require a major diversion to keep the cops busy. They decide to arrange a “999”—the code for “officer down” in police parlance, which will bring the force en masse to the location of the shooting and leave the building unprotected. And Marcus has the perfect victim ready to hand: his new straight-arrow partner Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), who just happens to be the nephew of Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson), the lead investigator on the bank heist. Belmont will take Chris to a run-down ghetto where one of his snitches (Luis Da Silva) will be waiting to do the deed. But things do not go as planned, mostly because Gabe decides to act on his own.
One has to wonder that the city fathers in Atlanta agreed to have “Triple 9” shoot there; the image of the city presented by Hillcoat and cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis might pass for one of the circles of Dante’s hell, a parade of decay, ugliness and despair. You can argue, of course, that the ambience is entirely right for a story of endemic corruption, but that doesn’t make it any more pleasurable to experience; one comes out of the film feeling in need of a shower. Nor is the cast, strong as it is, particularly well used. That’s basically the fault of the script, which offers only the sketchiest characterizations. Affleck, a fine actor, is reduced to chewing gum perpetually to give Chris any personality, while Mackie just maintains high voltage and Ejiofor a pained attitude that resembles a case of constipation. Reedus is one-note, and though both Paul and Harrelson go for broke, both end up just seeming over-the-top. Collins comes across more successfully, registering an icy menace that marks him as the most villainous of the bunch. Winslet, unhappily, is as bad here as she was good in “Steve Jobs.” Even her accent is terrible.
Hillcoat and Karakatsanis try to jazz up their exercise in dreary cynicism with hyperkinetic action sequences shot in hand-held style and spliced together in short spurts by editor Dylan Tichenor, all pumped up by a pounding score from no fewer than four composers (Atticus Ross, Claudia Sarne, Leopold Ross and Bobby Krlic). But most of the picture is actually slow and plodding, the expository scenes often played at a deadening pace designed, one assumes, to allow viewers to put all the puzzle pieces together. A pity that when the narrative portrait is complete, it proves to amount to very little—just the tale of a wife who wants her husband back and is willing to do anything to that end.