TRIPLE 9 * * *
Starring Casey Affleck, Anthony Mackie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Woody Harrelson and Kate Winslet. Screenplay by Matt Cook. Directed by John Hillcoat.
Boasting a ridiculously overqualified roster of Oscar and Emmy veterans while coming from a filmmaker who tends to take himself a mite too seriously even under the best of circumstances, the cracklingly well-made potboiler Triple 9 comes as a delightful surprise for its economical craftsmanship and an almost complete lack of pretense.
Director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Matt Snow’s no-fuss-no-muss storytelling reminded me of one of Don Siegel’s late sixties, all-business cop flicks like Madigan or Coogan’s Bluff. It’s a B-Picture with an A-List cast, which on my watch counts as a compliment. The menu might suggest filet mignon but Triple 9 turns out to be a really good cheeseburger.
Anthony Mackie stars, leading a gang of crooked, present and former Atlanta cops beholden to an unseen Russian Mafioso so fearsome we’re told the dude got sent to the Gulag because even Putin was scared of him. Unfortunately this left his batshit wife Irina (Kate Winslet) running business in the States, and she’s out of her damn mind, terrorizing and blackmailing Mackie’s crew into pulling off heists that are growing increasingly more outlandish.
Winslet’s a hoot here, strutting and chain-smoking in a 1980’s Ivana Trump get-up while muttering casual murder threats in a “keel moose und squirrel” accent borrowed from Natasha Fatale. She starts having our guys picked off just for hesitating to accept her latest impossible mission.
If hubby wants to buy his way out of Siberia he’s gonna require some files that are currently under wraps at your friendly neighborhood U.S. Homeland Security building. Not an easy place to just break into, but extra motivation is supplied by Kate kidnapping the adorable young nephew her sister (Gal Gadot) had with crew member Chiwetel Ejiiofor. (“My seeeester was fucking a monkey,” Winslet rolls her eyes and groans.)
Our guys figure the only way this building will be exposed long enough to pull off the heist is if there’s a “999” call clear across town. A triple nine means an officer is down, and wouldn’t you know it Mackie has just been saddled with a brand new, goody-two-shoes partner (Casey Affleck) he personally can’t stand. So if he sets the kid up to get popped downtown, every cop in ATL will be racing for that crime scene while the rest of his crew can just waltz into that Homeland Security building on the other side of the city.
There’s a cruel, Murphy’s Law logic to the way Snow’s screenplay spins out, dropping clues in the lap of an addled investigator played by Woody Harrelson and a set of brilliantly buck teeth. (Woody seems to be trying to out-ham Winslet here. We’ll call it a draw.) If not exactly a bad lieutenant, he isn’t a very good one either, smoking heroin with his informants and always wearing a stars-and-stripes tie he occasionally holds up over his head like a noose. He’s also way over-protective of his nephew, who of course is our young, doomed Affleck.
I liked the rotted-out Atlanta locations, with the Greek chorus of junkies and sex workers (watch for Michael K. Williams in a brief but hilarious turn) and the generally sweaty, filthy vibe of the whole thing. The film feels lived-in, even when it’s getting a bit silly. Triple 9 is lighter on its feet than previous Hillcoat pictures like The Proposition (which I quite enjoyed) and The Road (which I did not.) It feels like it was cut down from something much longer and more ambitious – there’s really no other way to explain so many famous actors in such small roles – yet this short(ish) form feels right. There’s a little too much goofiness here to support directorial delusions of grandeur. Harrelson’s tie is just the right amount of editorializing.
Physical spaces in the movie shrink as it goes on. Triple 9 kicks off with a bravura, big-canvas bank robbery from Michael Mann’s Heat school, but as these characters’ options narrow the action scenes grow tighter and more constrained, eventually compressing into car parks and elevators, emphasizing tension over spectacle. The last two scenes are the film’s best — white-knuckled, claustrophobic and nearly silent.
When it’s done you feel the same, not insubstantial satisfaction as when you’ve just finished a paperback you’ll probably be passing on to a friend who has a long flight coming up soon.