Whilst it's peppered with searing action set-pieces and hosts a talented cast, it eventually runs out of steam and turns into a likeable but clichèd affair.
It seems largely impossible now, in Hollywood, to produce a film that centres on bank heists that isn’t knee-jerkingly compared to Michael Mann’s Heat. Whilst none really touch the cinematic brilliance of his acclaimed thriller, we have been graced with some fantastic heist films in the last decade from Ben Affleck’s muscular The Town to Spike Lee’s intelligent Inside Job. With a script that had been on the famed ‘blacklist’ of the most liked screenplays, a fantastic director in John Hillcoat and an impossibly gifted ensemble to boot, Triple 9 was poised to set its sights on the dizzying heights of the 1995 classic.
Set, unusually but refreshingly, in Atlanta, the plot follows a group of armed thieves who complete a heist (at the orders of a ruthless Russian mob boss) in broad daylight before making a hasty and messy getaway. What follows is a milieu of crooked cops, gang violence and a ‘final’ job for the robbers. To explain the plot any further than that would unleash a whole host of sub-plots and deviations that we don’t have time for and, for that matter, neither does the film apparently.
Therein lies the films ultimate problem. What director Hillcoat and writer Matt Cook do is give themselves too much to divulge in. Whether it be about the many family ties within the cast or the level of corruption within the police department or the Mexican gang influence, the film sets up so much that it ultimately never wraps up. Hillcoat’s previous efforts such as the sparse and brilliant The Road and the brutally brilliant The Proposition never had these problems. They featured linear, straightforward, compelling storytelling. Whilst that doesn’t mean the material here isn’t compelling, it does end up being rather convoluted and hastily solved.
That being said, Hillcoat’s direction is scintillating at times. The action set-pieces crackle with precision and sparks of brutal violence. The opening heist, especially, is brilliantly taut and meticulously formed and a police raid gone wrong on a suspect oozes with palpable tension. Unfortunately the plot advancement and the character development around those set-pieces do not deliver at the same level. Hilcoat drenches his films in nihilism and that mood is apparent in the way the film plays out and in how it’s shot, complete with a dirty green/grey aesthetic.
As mentioned before, the cast for this production is ridiculously good. Headed by the criminally underrated Casey Affleck, it boasts the likes of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Woody Harrelson, Clifton Collins Jr., Kate Winslet and TV favourites Aaron Paul and Norman Reedus, it never makes full use of such endless talent. Bar Kate Winslet who seems to be having the most fun, gloriously playing up her role as the head of a ruthless Russian mob, and Ejiofor who really sells his role as a conflicted criminal, none of the cast genuinely grab the film by the scruff of its neck and register than anything more than a plot device. Affleck seems to be channeling his character from Gone Baby Gone whilst Harrelson ‘camps up’ his role in True Detective and we get to see Aaron Paul harken back to a darker Jesse Pinkman.
What’s worth mentioning as well is that, Atticus Ross, without his usual collaborator Trent Reznor but with the help of a host of others, create a pounding, pulsating electronic soundtrack that compliment what’s on screen and add to the action when it kicks into gear.
Triple 9 (2016), directed by John Hillcoat, is distributed in the UK by Entertainment One. Certificate 15.