TRIPLE 9 – being from John Hillcoat, the director of THE PROPOSITION, THE ROAD and LAWLESS – is a cops ‘n robbers movie where the dirty details of the setting, the eccentric character and actor moments, and the suffocating cloud of near-hopelessness in mood and content are given a little more energy than narrative. Even so, it is fairly effective as a heist/suspense thriller and is handily pushed over the finish line by its A+ cast who all came excited to play in this heightened world of crooked Atlanta cops and mercenaries forced by Russian-Jewish gangsters to try to steal from the Department of Homeland Security. The specifics are all odd enough to make police corruption stories seem fresh.
The movie opens with a carload of sweaty, dangerous men discussing and then launching into a credits-sequence daylight bank robbery. It’s only after their messy escape (which includes a van driving fast through traffic while filled with red dye pack smoke and machine guns fired on gridlocked civilians) that we see the badges come out and realize that most of these guys are cops. (Others, we hear later, are “special ops guys” turned private security contractors.) They actually change out of their stained clothes and go straight to work. That’s a long day! I bet they smell pretty ripe, too.
The score by Atticus Ross and friends provides a constant low grade electronic pulse to keep you nervous until the next burst of professional mayhem depicted with Michael Mann-like matter-of-factness. Professionals in the violence industry ply their trade with practiced precision – get on the ground there, look at these photos of your family, shoot that guy – that sometimes goes off the trail into messy chaos. That’s just how it goes sometimes. Most of the time, it’s clear, they know exactly what they’re doing as they burn their getaway car or detonate a bomb in the bank. To them it’s just a flash inside some windows that they see from a distance, accompanied by a muffled popping sound.
These savage intrusions into the regular world have a realistic, every day look to them, but cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis (BULLHEAD, THE DROP, CUB) also dips into some more stylized night scenes with bold colors and dirty smears of texture within deep shadows, like film noir with a splash of Argento.
Our sole ray of hope and sunshine in this hellscape of almost-all-bad-guys is Chris Allen (Casey Affleck, SOUL SURVIVORS), an ex-Marine (we know from the USMC window decal as well as how he carries himself) who gets transferred “from Zone 2” and training-dayed up with two-faced heister cop Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie, NOTORIOUS). Chris enters the fray with a casual what-is-this-bullshit outsider perspective that gets him dressed down by Belmont. I wonder if Hillcoat, as an Australian, has a similar approach to making an American cop movie. So many movies about this kinda stuff seem dull and routine. This one feels exotic.
Chris is the hero, but he’s no supercop. Honestly he’s kinda slow to pick up on the nefarious planning around him that involves killing him as a diversion for the heist. Apparently the title is police code for an officer down, not just the number of the beast upside down.
Despite Hillcoat’s heightened image of inner city Atlanta as a dangerous inferno populated by shirtless dudes who are almost more tattoo than skin and will flip out when you try to talk to them, we also know that Chris saw way worse in Iraq. Four severed heads on a car hood as a message from a cartel don’t even register as that big of a deal to him, and the feeling of constant potential danger from any direction is clearly something he’s used to from overseas. But he’s not broken yet. After getting some beers into him he sheepishly confesses “I want to make a difference,” getting a big laugh out of his uncle/mentor Jeff (Woody Harrelson, MONEY TRAIN)
Uncle Jeff, coincidentally, is investigating the bank robbery. We can also count him as a good guy, even though Harrelson delights in the bad lieutenantishness of the character, mumbling and spreading cynicism and smoking crack with a hooker and etc.
Belmont and his boys seem like the next generation that could’ve been mentored by Alonzo in TRAINING DAY. They have one of those little neighborhood bars where mainly police hang out, except it’s a nasty strip club and the DJ plays “Pigs” by Cypress Hill and everybody joyfully sings along. (The end credits remix “Pigs” with movie score.) Not invited is their dirtbag-loser-should-never-have-been-allowed-to-be-part-of-this-drug-addict-kicked-off-the-force-ruining-it-for-everybody wet sack of a friend Gabe, played so perfectly by Aaron Paul (THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT) that the first frame you see him you just go “oh jesus, cut this idiot loose he will for sure be the death of all of you, and this is very, very obvious you guys I shouldn’t be having to tell you this you are professionals here aren’t you?” Then he opens his mouth and you know you were right.
Also you got Norman Reedus (BLADE II, AMERICAN GANGSTER) and Clifton Collins Jr. (FORTRESS, ONE TOUGH BASTARD), who are as enjoyable as usual, but the most scorching performance is Chiwetel REDBELT Ejiofor as the ringleader, Michael. He’s more muscular and intense than even when he played a martial arts master, and he’s pretty scary, but he’s given sympathetic motivations. Some time after Iraq he got mixed up with this Russian gang, and it’s not so easy to get out now because he has a son with the boss’s sister (Gal Gadot, CRIMINAL). The boss is one of these ice cold mafia queens, kinda like the mom in ONLY GOD FORGIVES, with the big hair and the expensive sunglasses, fancy clothes, chain smoking, never flustered, beefy bodyguards with her at all times, walking around like she OH MY GOD THAT’S KATE WINSLET. I didn’t even recognize her at first. It’s more of a goofy performance than one of her great ones, but it’s enjoyable to see her messing around with a role so against type.
I’ve always found Affleck very likable, and I’ve seen him in gritty roles like OUT OF THE FURNACE where he’s not necessarily the quiet guy living in the shadow of his older brother Batman. But this seems kinda new for him, this pumped up tough guy who walks casually into dangerous situations knowing everyone will underestimate him. He makes an interestingly unexpected action lead, whether pushing through hallways behind a ballistic shield or wading into a crowd of guys who could be extras in a DEATH RACE movie. I do feel there is one scene where his gum chewing is a little too self conscious. But he seemed to get the hang of it as filming went on.
The vibe of this movie is like the shot that was in the trailer, where a huge scary looking shirtless guy with tattoos and a giant bushy beard is hauling ass down a street chased by cops, screaming and firing a machine gun haphazardly over his shoulder. But it’s also the part earlier in that scene, where Chris is watching the guy from across the street as he gets his kid out of the car, and Chris comments that he’s “a real pro” at folding up the stroller to put it in the trunk. He’s a dad, so he appreciates that stuff. That’s almost my favorite part, because who stops a movie for a moment like that? John Hillcoat does.