Triple 9 is a cops and robber-cops thriller in which both the good and bad guys wear badges, except the crooked police officers take theirs off when they hijack banks. It’s a clever heist flick with no heroes, only big talents -- Anthony Mackie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Casey Affleck, Kate Winslet, Woody Harrelson -- chasing each other's tails. We’re primed to root for the bandits. Casting Mackie, the most charismatic man in Hollywood, guarantees it. When he hangs up a call and calmly microwaves his SIM card to destroy the evidence, his fastidiousness is so impressive we want to lean into the screen for a high five. But Triple 9 isn’t an easy A-list caper like Ocean's Eleven. It wants to test how far our loyalty stretches, until it finally snaps.
Director John Hillcoat (The Road, Lawless, The Proposition) specializes in star-studded Westerns and sci-fi films about human greed, weaving his cynicism so tightly into the script that it's like a blanket without warmth. Triple 9 is Hillcoat's first film set in the present. At first glance, it's disappointingly conventional. Why is he investing his talents in something so ordinary, no matter how enjoyable it is to watch detectives and criminals who are really, really good at their gigs? (Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul, as the crime gang’s weakest link, is equally enjoyable to watch as he perfects playing a fuck-up.) And then, as the thieves brainstorm how to break into Homeland Security and steal a file for Russian mafia boss Irina (Winslet, tarted up with the blonde helmet and blue eye shadow of '80s Ivana Trump), Hillcoat and screenwriter Matt Cook reveal their own dark and uncompromising booby trap.
In police lingo, “triple nine” is code for “officer down" -- when a policeman is shot, it's obviously a huge deal. To get 10 minutes alone in Homeland Security, these shady policeman have a wicked brainstorm: send Marcus (Mackie) to the other side of town to shoot a fellow officer and every cop will race to the crime scene –- the perfect distraction. And Marcus is happy to whack his new partner (Casey Affleck), a dorky-looking, gum-chewing whitebread cop who has already made himself a neighborhood target by starting a fight with a tatted gang leader.
What’s not a huge deal? Killing anyone else. Before this moment, Triple 9 has offed plenty of characters. No one in the movie cares about the Saran-wrapped couple in Irina’s shipping truck or the prostitute dumped in a shopping cart. They don’t even notice. As the camera pans past the bodies, we spot oblivious bystanders just yards away. But when that trigger is pulled on Affleck, the camera zooms up to watch a dozen screaming sirens speed toward the fallen officer. #AllLivesMatter? Not here. Hillcoat wants us to admit the truth behind the robbers' callous calculation: Some people are worth more than others.
This sounds harsh, but Triple 9 wants to question how action flicks have numbed audiences to violence. Other thrillers would expect us to cheer when Affleck, amazing as always, punctuates a long, crazy, machine-gun-blasting chase scene by capping the thug. Here, Hillcoat opens the sequence by showing the soon-to-be-dead man pushing his kid’s stroller. The shootout isn’t shaky-cam excitement, it’s a patient lesson in how to check every closet and bathroom for the killer. Then Hillcoat shows us the aftermath: the caution tape, the paperwork, the furious neighbors, the grinning cops who don't share Affleck's guilt. It's not weepy. It’s banal.
Triple 9 has its cheesy flaws. Hillcoat can't resist an ominous thunderclap, a conversation lit entirely by cigarettes, or a close-up appreciation of Gal Gadot's ass, which hasn't been filmed with such reverence since Fast Five. At least that's not the only lesson the Fast franchise taught Triple 9. Hillcoat's ensemble is terrifically multicultural, so much so that you can tell he and the casting director avoided auditioning the same default white faces. He even presents something no movie has ever shown: Ejiofor and Gadot's half-black, half-Jewish son Felix (Blake McLennan), who toddles into the frame wearing natural curls and a yarmulke.
It's no racial utopia. Ejiofor's Russian in-laws reveal themselves to be bigoted as hell. Yet you can't help admiring Hillcoat's brisk and brutal vision of modern America, which admits that the rules aren't always fair. To make sure we don't forget his theme, he makes Woody Harrelson's drug-addicted detective spend the entire movie wearing a stars-and-stripes tie. Is his character’s fashion choice patriotic or ironic? Both. When a black street protester hollers that this country is just for the privileged, Harrelson half-jokingly grabs his tie by the end and strangles himself like it's a noose.