When you see the name John Hillcoat attached to a project, you expect certain things. His Australian Western The Proposition (2005) broke new ground and was a revival of form for the genre; The Road (2009) was an astute adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel; and Lawless (2012) was a gritty, yet occasionally uneven, prohibition-era gangster flick. For his fourth feature, Triple 9, Hillcoat uses all the bells and whistles and brings his signature style to the cop procedural-heist film hybrid; and yet, it surprisingly feels flat and lacking in substance.
The film’s plot is dense and compelling for the most part. It concerns a group of criminals and dirty cops (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus, Clifton Collins Jr., and Anthony Mackie). After having completed a bank job, they are coerced do a heist by the Russian mafia. At the same time, one of those cops gets assigned a new partner (Casey Affleck), who is the nephew of the police chief trying to solve the case. The film’s title comes into play midway through the story as police lingo, but I won’t reveal its meaning because it’s the means for which they can potentially pull off the heist.
The film has some great action set pieces: an opening bank heist, a mid-act arrest chase scene, and the heist in question. Because of these, the film carries the spirit of gritty 1970s crime thrillers, but sadly that same grittiness so important in that type of films and Hillcoat’s filmography is absent in Triple 9, replaced by slick production values. But a shiny final package doesn’t cover up the multiple clichés which ultimately leaves the story with a lack of immediacy and tension. As a result, the film is beautiful to look at, but feels too neat, too polished to be riveting.
Acting is top notch, but the A-list ensemble doesn’t have much to work with in terms of character development. An almost male-exclusive picture, female roles are predictably shuffled off into overused turns as prostitutes, concerned wives, and mid-level police officers in support of their male counterparts. In addition, Kate Winslet perhaps sports the worst Russian accent I’ve heard in years from an English-speaking actor. This, and her character’s demeanor makes her the least threatening character in recent memory, given how important her role is to the plot. Because of this I felt the urge to pop David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (2007) into my Blu-Ray player to remind myself what a crime thriller featuring the Russian Mafia could aspire to be.
Unfortunately, a second viewing of Triple 9 didn’t change my initial impression. Some can blame the script or the actors in their delivery and characterization, but I think that the problem herein lies in the unsuccessful translation of an intriguing concept to film. Here’s to hoping John Hillcoat’s next venture is a return to form for the otherwise dependable director.
Starring: Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Clifton Collins, Jr., Norman Reedus, Teresa Palmer, Michael K. Williams, Gal Gadot, Woody Harrelson, Kate Winslet
Directed by: John Hillcoat
Written by: Matt Cook
Running time: 115 minutes