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Triple 9 | Review

The Russians Are Coming: Hillcoat Juggles Strands in Sprawling Heist Thriller

Triple Nine

About half way into John Hillcoat’s impressively staged heist thriller Triple 9, it becomes apparent the audience won’t be allowed to develop any sort of sympathy for any of its various characters, a pity considering the potentially rich subtext. Rather than lob gobs of exposition our way, Matt Cook’s screenplay attempts to streamline characterization into the full-tilt madness of criminal legacies and the corresponding demise gilding the future of the powerful and greedy. At times, this congeals into intoxicatingly energetic and disturbingly violent moments of survival play, but whenever the narrative returns to moments of static calm the film has a nagging sense of perfunctory ornamentation, it’s more important elements given short shrift in an effort to balance a variety of odds and ends.

Five masked men storm an Atlanta bank, successfully removing the contents of a safety deposit box before a major snafu slows them up on the freeway during their escape. After a deadly shootout, we learn two of the men are crooked cops, Jorge Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Marcus (Anthony Mackie), and two are ex-military, including the weary Russell (Norman Reedus) and group leader Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Russell’s unkempt younger brother Gabe (Aaron Paul) is also along as extra muscle, but his dimwitted actions nearly cost them the operation. Michael is operating under the behest of Irina (Kate Winslet), a nasty Russian mafia head who is desperate to secure the release of her husband from a gulag. But she informs Michael his crew isn’t finished, as they must complete a second mission to obtain a package from a secure Department of Homeland Security facility. The matter is complicated because Michael fathered a child with Irina’s younger sister. However, his crew determines the only way to buy enough time to get into the facility is to create a distraction with a Triple 9, which is the murder of a cop.

In many ways, Triple 9 is like every other heist film, extolling the notion there’s no honor amongst thieves. But Hillcoat’s variation is a beautifully mounted piece of work, from the dizzying cast to a several memorable action sequences, beginning with an opening bank robbery which ends in a freeway shoot-out of hazy red paint and a spray of bullets.

A complex ballet of disparate elements come together to reveal an eventual collision course and the titular event which will allow for the final denouement. Though Triple 9 is never simplistic in its modifications of good vs. evil, most of these characters can easily be placed in one camp or the other, and those with more complex characteristics would have been better served with a bit more screen time. Ejiofor’s strained relationship with the Russians is an interesting flourish, and the questionably cast Kate Winslet and her blonde mane might have seemed less hokey had we come to understand her as more than a ruthless interim mob ruler. Likewise, Woody Harrelson’s alcoholic detective is never invited in from the cold of the periphery, even though he’s involved in one of the film’s best sequences featuring Michael K. Williams as a drag queen named Sweet Pea.

Too often, however, the screenplay is too obvious in its pipe laying, littered with forced dialogue where characters must quickly assert relationships of ‘brother’ or ‘uncle’ for the sake of running time.

Out of the morally compromised miasma of Atlanta’s bustling criminal underbelly, captured with superb sordid detail by Belgian DP Nicolas Karakatsanis (Bullhead; The Drop), we eventually focus on the dynamic between Anthony Mackie’s crooked cop and the altruistic Casey Affleck (between his performance here and this year’s Manchester by the Sea it would appear he’s been a woefully neglected male lead). But Hillcoat glides over an important step in their evolution from enemies to comrades which would have heightened the building tension and the fate in store for them. In fact, the narrative completely takes for granted the Mackie and Clifton Collins Jr. characters, the mysterious wild cards in a powder keg of masculine grandstanding. Even Aaron Paul and Norman Reedus are granted brief moments of perception.

Beyond Winslet, women hardly factor at all (including a wasted Teresa Palmer), which easily aligns Triple 9 with Hillcoat’s previous films like Lawless (2012), The Road (2009) and The Proposition (2005). But with such exemplary elements in place, the final payoff only seems a disappointment since it leads to an inevitability which makes the film seem more mundane than it really is.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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