A murky paradox, “Triple 9” takes turns being difficult to track or settling for obvious explication of what the audience already knows.
This brings up the question of how much you need to care about the individuals caught up in a complicated dirty-cop narrative in order to actually care about the movie. The answer here is “more.” You’d need to care more. Generally, when people complain about a film’s lack of clean lines and rooting interests, I find myself on the other side of the argument, where moral ambiguity and unpredictable storytelling can flourish with the right script, a clear-eyed director and actors up for a challenge. But with Australian director John Hillcoat’s Atlanta-set picture, the very first scene sets off alarm bells.
We’re in a car, at night. An ex-Special Forces operative played by Chiwetel Ejiofor murmurs portents of doom with his associates, regarding the gang’s options. They’re under the thumb, apparently, of the Georgia hub of the Russian-Israeli mob, and there’s a bank robbery in the works that will settle some sort of score.
The introductory dialogue is indirect, fragmented — more atmosphere than exposition. Within seconds, I was thinking: Huh? Wha? Wait, what?
Much of what comes next in “Triple 9” feels determined to keep the audience clear and engaged, to mixed results.
Here’s some of what happens in the story. Ejiofor’s twitchy, grim-faced crew played by Anthony Mackie, Clifton Collins Jr., Aaron Paul and Norman Reedus hit the bank, successfully. It’s a pretty effective sequence, crisply staged and edited. The ensuing freeway shootout is interestingly messy, casting a shadow of trouble on the gang’s collective future.
The investigating police detective (Woody Harrelson, whose character is rarely without a joint) has a nephew on the force, the story’s conduit or nominal audience-identification figure, played by Casey Affleck. His partner turns out to be one of the dirty cops (played by Mackie), secretly working for the steely Russian mob queen (Kate Winslet, wearing more eye shadow than the entire cast of “Kinky Boots”). Intramural thug loyalties clash with the new cop’s dawning realization that he’s surrounded by snakes.
It’s not a ridiculous degree of complexity per se, but screenwriter Matt Cook mistakes solemnity for gravity, and a high body count for dramatic urgency. The cast is terrific, unfortunately. By that I mean the cast is so skillful, so ripe and ready to deliver a good, nervy, dark-hued heist picture, the one at hand (the title “Triple 9” refers to the 999 “officer down” radio code) becomes especially frustrating.
And speaking of dark: Whoa! That lighting! Whether the actors lurk in nocturnal shadows or simply stand around in hallways, Hillcoat and cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis push them into inky abstraction, silhouettes lit only by their cigarettes. It’s a highly stylized look, but in a film whose middle name is not “Clarity,” the effect soon becomes self-conscious and excessive.
The murderous reversals and revenge killings keep coming. And although the violence here is actually meant to hurt, as opposed to the peppy R-rated slaughter of “Deadpool,” the story issues are a problem — as is Hillcoat’s urge to turn Atlanta (one of the cheapest big cities in America to make a movie, which may explain why the script is set there) into a crimson-toned symbol of American rot.
☆ ☆ (out of 4)
MPAA rating: R (for sequences of strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity)
Running time: 1:55