A new film from Australian director John Hillcoat should be reason to celebrate. In 2012 he gave us Lawless, a novelistic Prohibition-era tale of corrupt cops and honest criminals. His 2006 outback-set The Proposition was as much horror flick as brutal revisionist Western. In between, in 2009, he went ultra-postapocalyptic in the harrowing The Road. This is a filmmaker who smashes stereotypes in well-explored genres and makes us see familiar stories from new angles. He makes B movies feel like prestige dramas.
So what the heck happened with Triple 9? How did Hillcoat manage to make an urban heist thriller feel so, well, generic? How did he manage to render his terrific cast — which includes such worshippable names as Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Winslet, and Woody Harrelson, and some who are well on their way to being worshippable, including Casey Affleck and Anthony Mackie — as characters too unlikable to be genuinely engaging but not complex or twisted enough to be intriguing anyway? Is it all down to the script, by newcomer Matt Cook? That doesn’t seem like enough of an explanation. There are certainly moments in Triple 9 that are superbly tense and dripping with anxiety. But then they’re over, and we’re left with a hollow emptiness. Hillcoat’s films have, previously, been haunting: they linger with you long after they’re over. But I had all but forgotten Triple 9 the minute it ended.
There seems to be an intense effort, early in the film, to keep certain aspects of where the story is going to go and who the characters are under wraps, as a way of generating suspense, but if they were meant to add up to anything other than cheap twists once revealed, that never happens. (This may be why the marketing of the film is giving away so much of what the film itself holds in reserve: because it doesn’t serve the purpose it was intended to serve. Or maybe it’s just because all trailers give away too much nowadays.) The opening scene, for instance, depicts an Atlanta bank heist by a very disciplined group of bad guys — played by Mackie (The Night Before, Love the Coopers), Aaron Paul (Fathers & Daughters, Exodus: Gods and Kings), Norman Reedus (Vacation, The Conspirator), and Clifton Collins Jr. (Transcendence, Pacific Rim) — led by Michael (Ejiofor: Secret in Their Eyes, The Martian), who seem to know a lot about police procedure, timing their incursion to police-response times. But they’re also undisciplined enough to have among their crew someone who will be distracted from their target — they are after the contents of one specific safe-deposit box — to grab a bag of cash sitting nearby, which contains a dye bomb that goes off at just the wrong time during their getaway. It’s a visually exciting sequence — unlike some later in the film, when Hillcoat’s cinematic discipline disappears in favor of frenetic frenzy — but we are left wondering whether we’re supposed to be rooting for these guys, or hoping for them to get caught, or just basically why they are worth telling a story about at all.
And that question is never answered. Not when the woman they were working for, Russian mafia boss Irina Vlaslov (Winslet: The Dressmaker, Steve Jobs), refuses to release them from her employ until they do another, much bigger, much more difficult job: stealing incriminating documents from a Homeland Security building, which will secure her mobster husband’s release from prison. (Winslet’s accent is shaky, but it’s great to see her playing a ruthless, coldhearted villain.) The question is not answered via the hardbitten cop investigating the bank job (Harrelson: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, Out of the Furnace), nor his cop nephew (Affleck: Interstellar, ParaNorman), whose new assignment in the Atlanta drug-war war zone coincidentally connects him in an improbable way with the heist gang. (Affleck is fantastic here; his is really the only character with any nuance, and he makes the most of it to shape a smart performance out of not much material.)
Hints of significance hover over the doings: something, perhaps, about overly militarized police here; something else about the restlessness of amped-up military contractors over there (Michael and some of his gang are former mercenaries); maybe a hint of exasperation with cop culture and overblown declarations of brothers-in-arms-ness? But nothing coalesces. Triple 9 is as quick and loud and violent as that dye bomb in the bag of cash, but it washes away with no effort at all.