There is a high level of expectation that comes with the ensemble cast packed within Triple 9. It is the kind of movie that is constantly surprising its audience with recognizable faces popping up in various scenes – “wait, they’re in this too!?” – and when that many high-caliber actors are saying yes to something, the natural assumption is that real quality is the explanation for why. The question then becomes whether or not the movie has the script and the style to be more than just a star-fest – and the exciting news is that the John Hillcoat-directed crime thriller has the goods.
Now prepare for a lot of notable names in parentheses. Based on an original screenplay by Matt Cook, the story begins centered on an Atlanta-based crew of ex-military criminals and cops (Anthony Mackie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus and Clifton Collins Jr.) who find themselves under the thumb and pulling heists for the Russian Mafia – specifically the matriarch Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet), and her sister Elena (Gal Gadot). After pulling off a mostly successful bank job, they think that they’re out of the woods, but then they’re hit with one more seemingly impossible assignment: the theft of a file from a Department of Homeland Security building.
After deadly warnings demonstrate to the men that backing out is most definitely not an option, the crew begins devising a plan to pull off the mission that proves controversial amongst the group. They agree that the only way to get the time window they need to pull off the job is to set up a 999 call across town – the police code for “officer down.” It’s decided that the target will be placed on the back of Chris Allen (Casey Affleck) – a newcomer to the precinct who not only manages to get the attention of deadly local gangs within his first few days, but also happens to be the nephew of Sergeant Detective Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson), the hard-drinking veteran who happens to be investigating the bank robbery the group pulled off.
Triple 9 works with the extreme challenge that comes with having eight lead characters, but it’s impressive ability to craft legitimate narratives and important moments for each one is really what makes the film work (obviously also supported by some fantastic performances all-around). Whether it's Ejiofor's Michael's desire to have more time with his son apart from his ex-wife, Elena; the struggle of Mackie's Marcus to orchestrate a job that will kill his new partner; or the investigation led by Harrelson’s Det. Jeffrey Allen into the heist team, the movie is constantly engaging with great character work, and largely does a wonderful job casting the ensemble in shades of grey – giving the audience the opportunity to understand each perspective. It’s not universal, as Gal Gadot and Teresa Palmer (playing Chris Allen’s wife) don’t really get all that much to do and only have a few lines of dialogue each, but it’s also not hugely surprising that supporting characters wouldn’t get a ton of screen time in a story with more than half-a-dozen topliners.
Credit for the movie’s impressive drama belongs to Matt Cook and the outstanding ensemble, but it’s John Hillcoat, cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis, and editor Dylan Tichenor who orchestrate Triple 9 as a tense and engaging ride throughout. It’s pretty clear that the filmmaking team has seen Michael Mann’s Heat at least a few times – but that’s only intended as a compliment, as the shot composition is magnificent, the action intense, and the choreography and movements of the military-trained team authentic. You can’t call it unique, but every shocking moment lands as it should, the audience feels every explosion, and fans of the genre will love it.
Balancing its multiple narratives, Triple 9 is surprisingly well structured and paced, though it does run into a few issues by the time the time the third act rolls around – specifically the big set up for the titular event. Without giving away anything, what unfolds is well-done, and works logically with the rest of the movie, but also isn’t quite as impactful as you would expect from all of the set up that precedes it. Rather than being a huge dramatic conclusion, the heist ends up functioning as the set-up for the final chapter, and it results in some of the wind being taken out of its sails.
Thrilling and engaging, though not quite exceptional, Triple 9 legitimately delivers on everything it promises – from a fully active ensemble delivering varied and interesting performances, to a heist story with plenty of twists and turns as the cops stay right on the clever crooks’ trail. It’s a well-made crime film, and a fun time at the cinema.