So long as you go into John Hillcoat’s Triple 9 knowing that it is an old Volkswagen Rabbit painted up to look like a high-end Mercedes, the film’s many interesting problems cease to matter as much. It looks good and has a great cast, but it is very much a typical and often unintentionally silly cops and robbers movie rather than the exemplary crime saga sold by its trailers.
Casey Affleck stars as the newest guy on a police force riddled with dirty cops. Things are so bad, even his high-ranking and loyal uncle (Woody Harrelson) has a seemingly open drug problem. But Affleck’s Chris Allen wants to be one of the good guys.
And that’s about all the story Affleck gets. As the film’s moral center, he’s our most traditional protagonist by default, but the film is much more interested in Chiwetel Ejiofor and his crew, two of whom (Anthony Mackie and Clifton Collins Jr.) are dirty cops. A third (Aaron Paul) used to be a dirty cop. And virtually all of them (and this is true of Affleck as well) are ex-military, a theme Triple 9 introduces but fails to utilize in any real way.
The film begins with Ejiofor’s gang pulling off a job for Russian Mafia Queen Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet). Instead of paying them, she kills one and demands a second, much more difficult job. This puts Ejiofor in a tight spot, not just because he wants to keep his life but because he has a kid with Vlaslov’s sister. Honestly, if I started getting into all the family relationships in this movie, we’d be here all day, so I’ll stop at that one.
To do this seemingly impossible job, the gang will have to kill a cop, which should create a 999 - a conceit that apparently means the city’s entire police force will stop what they’re doing and respond when a police officer is shot, allowing the crew the extra time they need to pull off their heist.
Since Casey Affleck is Anthony Mackie’s new partner, they pick him as their target. This create’s Triple 9’s strange core narrative device - rather than be an active character, Affleck spends the film more as an ignorant MacGuffin, repeatedly escaping death without knowing it like Mr. Magoo. Furthermore, the whole film builds to this big last job. Once complete, we get a minor fourth act in which a finally Affleck solves a mystery we already know - the dirty cop’ identities. The whole thing has the effect of making him look wildly stupid.
Affleck’s performance doesn’t help. For probably his first five minutes of screen time his character doesn’t speak. When he finally does, Affleck sounds mildly confused and aloof. Meanwhile, he spends the whole movie gnawing on gum, tossing it around his mouth without grace as though it were his first go-round with the stuff. Watching him attempt to blow bubbles is really the highlight of the film.
Hillcoat tries to portray this gritty crime world a couple different ways. He wants the tactical verisimilitude of films like Sicario or Heat, a desire that really pays off in a great, tense gun battle through some housing projects halfway through the film. But he also fills the movie with cartoonish details that bring some of David Ayer’s tendencies to mind but without that filmmaker’s total commitment. Michael K. Williams shows up as an over the top drag queen. Kate Winslet’s character looks as loud as Cameron Diaz’ Malkina from The Counselor, but plays her quiet, thus forgoing the campy fun such a villain offers. Aaron Paul isn’t just a mess, he’s a cartoon of a mess. Only Woody Harrelson’s drunken, mumbly Sergeant plays to the goofy tone at the heart of this film. Everyone else goes prestige despite their surroundings.
There’s almost a great crime film here. Matt Cook’s script creates a lot of dots but connects few of them. Some, however, are interesting enough on their own. It’s always nice to see Clifton Collins Jr. get a big role like this, and Chiwetel Ejiofor is great as always. But this neither as crazy as it looks nor as serious as it thinks. Were it to somehow unite those two tones and make something more out of Casey Affleck’s character, this would be far more special. As it is, Hillcoat delivers something that’s rarely more than serviceable.