Starring: Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Clifton Collins, Jr., Norman Reedus, Teresa Palmer, Michael K. Williams, Gal Gadot, Woody Harrelson, Kate Winslet
Corruption in law enforcement is nearly always a theme that draws in an eager audience; “the man” is the villain that people just love to hate. In Triple 9, director John Hillcoat provides a vision of such corruption in a blatantly unemotional style. The film has an engaging plot, but it loses charisma because Hillcoat provides no subjective commentary on the story. In fact, Triple 9 is drenched in tension and artfully plays with the audience’s mental map, but for the most part, the motivations’ of key players are excluded, leaving the film feeling empty.
Triple 9 follows a group of criminals including Michael Atwood (Ejiofor) and two corrupt cops, Marcus Belmont (Mackie) and Franco Rodriguez (Collins, Jr.), as they steal a safety deposit box for the Russian Mafia. To their dismay, the group is coerced into doing another job, one that’s even bigger than the last and will require them to cause an officer-down call (a Triple 9) to distract the entire police force while they pull it off. Marcus suggests his new partner on the force, Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), as the victim, figuring that his injury will cause the biggest panic, given that he is the nephew of Sergeant Detective Jeffrey Allen (Harrelson).
Hillcoat offers the audience no introduction on any of his characters, with the film opening on the criminal team robbing a bank. A brief flash Marcus and Franco’s badges being tucked into their pockets before embarking on the crime is the only clue given to any of the team members’ identities. Throughout the film, we learn nothing else about these two characters, who should be explored as characters of interest. Whenever a good-seed-gone-bad is shown, we want to know more about the person; we want to understand how exactly this villain came to be. Hillcoat doesn’t give us what we want here; we’re forced to give our best guess as to why the two cops are involved in this treacherous ordeal. However, the film does give explanation to several other characters – we see a great deal of Michael, Chris, and the Sergeant, but since the established main characters are the criminals, the audience should be learning more about their motivations.
Fortunately, Hillcoat does offer us some insight into Michael’s character, who is portrayed well by Ejiofor. The mother of Michael’s child is involved on the side of the (very) distinctly Jewish mafia, and so the man is being controlled by concern for his son’s safety. This character is perhaps one of the most fascinating parts of Triple 9. One moment, he’s a deplorable person committing acts of cruelty, but then in the next moment the audience is filled with empathy for a desperate father. While Ejiofor provides a respectable performance, there’s nothing notable about any of his fellow cast members.
The best thing about Triple 9 is undoubtedly the cinematography, done by Nicolas Karakatsanis. The movie was filmed for intensity, with thrilling visuals for an action-lover to die for. However, cinematography can’t fill in the holes in a weak story. What’s sad is that this is a story with so much buildable material, and a different director could have capitalized on this. In the end, Triple 9 will satisfy those seeking a quick thrill, but those wanting anything more will find themselves disappointed.