Director: John Hillcoat
Starring: Casey Affleck, Kate Winslet, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul
Words: J. Wood
Triple 9 sees director John Hillcoat trying so hard to be Michael Mann that it is actually quite embarrassing to watch on screen. Hillcoat has made three very good films, all Western or at least Western influenced, he is clearly comfortable in the genre so why he has tried to take on a modern crime thriller is beyond my comprehension. Triple 9 was one of the films that I was most looking forward to for 2016, on the basis of a director who has barely put a foot wrong and a brilliant cast list. This is likely to be one of the most disappointing films of the year, because pretty much everything that could have gone wrong has.
A lot of the problems stem from writer Matt Cook’s script, which relies too much on everything being intertwined and connected rather than make a credible drama. To briefly summarise Chiwetel Ejiofor’s character is a former special forces man now working armed robberies for the Russian mob in Georgia. His ex-partner is the sister of the Russian’s front. Chiwetel’s gang is made up of cops and ex cops, one of whom is partnered with Casey Affleck’s character, whose uncle (Woody Harrelson) is the lead investigator on one of the gang’s raids. The film relies far too much on the audience buying into the coincidences that lead to a situation like this, and to be quite honest I simply did not.
Another issue with the script is the horrific bleakness and in some instances outright nastiness that it calls for. Whilst I was watching it I thought quite a lot of Sicario, Denis Villeneuve’s Conrad inspired cartel thriller of last year, that has a similar aesthetic and ideal as this film does. For a while I was wondering why I let the violence and horrors of Sicario go, whilst this one just made me really rather uncomfortable, and then the two answers struck me, credibility and reality. The thing that sold me on Sicario was the cartel angle, and though the events in that piece of fiction may not depict actual cartel committed atrocities, there was enough that rang true about them to hit me, whereas here Atlanta is portrayed as a forgotten urban wasteland rather than a modern, vibrant city, and the story feels so contrived and outlandish that it is creating these moments of sheer dark heartedness to fit into that. I am usually one with a strong stomach for this sort of thing, but towards the end one action left me speechless at the grimness of it all, in a film that for my money had not earned the right through its filmmaking to subject its audience to that.
That brings me on to the next major bone of contention with Triple 9, the execution of the whole thing on a technical level. Hillcoat’s direction is plainly suited to long, lingering shots of vast, expansive landscapes. He is not an ultra-modern filmmaker who is comfortable with action sequences in which the camera feels like it is within the very heart of the action. Some of the heist scenes and chases of the film were so poorly filmed and edited together that they are almost illegible. Compare these to the crisp scenes that a Roger Deakins or a Greig Fraser would bring to such kinetic sequences and you are left sadly disappointed, whilst attempts to emulate Heat fall way below par. Add to that an overly intrusive score and a lighting set-up so dim and dark that it appears to have fallen foul of the electricity bill, and you are left with a technical mess of a film.
Then there are the performances which are a mixed bag if ever there was one. On a good note kudos to Casey Affleck for carrying a difficult film admirably, as everything around him collapsed. There are very few actors who I can see on screen and not realise who they are because they inhabit their roles so well and yet still stay below the radar and he is one of them. Elsewhere Chiwetel Ejiofor gives it his best, he is clearly a fine actor who clearly saw something more than the character that made the final cut. He does his best to make the most of the character’s emotional torment but I can’t say he managed it, whilst the menace he has clearly shown in the past is missing here. There are ridiculously bad phoned in performances from Harrelson (playing the same character he always does) and Mackie, while Aaron Paul is still to really convince in any non-Breaking Bad role. At least Kate Winslet, the only woman who really got the chance to make any sort of impact in this painfully macho film in which women are tokens or plot devices, makes an effort to make her character interesting but an unconvincing accent and a more subdued performance than her astonishing look suggest hit the brakes on that. In a film characterized by mistakes though the biggest one is the signing off on Michael K. Williams having a single scene cameo as a transsexual prostitute, an awful decision if there ever was one.
Triple 9 suffers from too grandiose an ambition and too limited an execution. I can tell that there was an idea to play along the Heat mantra of the cop and the criminal being two sides of a coin, whereas here the characters are both sides of the coin themselves. Also there was clearly an inclination to give the characters personal lives that either never came to fruition or, like a lot it seems, hit the cutting room floor. There are simply too many time constraints and an abundance of threads, which means that too many ideas remain under developed. Add to this one of the most underwhelming ‘reveals’ of recent times and a final act so hurried that it somehow forgets to give what I would consider sufficient closure to three of the aforementioned threads, and you have a movie that simply does not achieve anything close to the goals it set out with.