With a cast that includes Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Woody Harrelson, Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus, and Kate Winslet, TRIPLE 9 (2016) should have been triple the fun, but it’s not.
TRIPLE 9 tells a dark tale of corrupt cops working for the Russian mob, and as such should have been a riveting action drama, but less than stellar writing and underdeveloped characters ultimately do this one in.
The bad guys include crooked cops Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie) and Franco Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr.), ex-cop Gabe Welch (Aaron Paul), and disgrunteld ex-soldiers Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Russell Welch (Norman Reedus) who also happens to be Gabe’s brother. They work for the Russian mob, and they’re at the mob’s beck and call because the head of the mob Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet) has Michael Atwood’s young son in her clutches, which in this case is easy to do because she happens to be the boy’s aunt! See, the boy’s mother is Irina’s sister.
The good guys— and there’s not many of them in this movie— include Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), a cop who runs the straight and narrow because he wants to “make a difference,” (cliche, cough, cliche), and his loose canon police captain uncle Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson).
Michael and his team rob a bank for Irina’s mob, but after the job, she refuses to pay them, saying there is one more job that they must do for her, and of course, Michael cannot refuse her, because she’s got his son. The job is next to impossible, as it involves robbing a federal building loaded with swat-team style security, and so they come up with a plan to utilize “999” which is the police code for “officer down.” They decide to kill a police officer, knowing that once that 999 code spreads over the police dispatch, every officer on the force will be racing towards the shooting scene, which will give them the time to make their impossible heist.
They choose Marcus’ new partner Chris to be their victim, thus setting the stage for the big conflict in this movie.
TRIPLE 9 suffers from some pretty weak writing across the board. The screenplay is by Matt Cook, and it’s his first feature film writing credit. It shows.
Let’s start with characters. All of these guys have the potential to be very interesting, but none of them— not one– is developed enough for us to care about them. Part of the problem is that there are too many characters in this movie. Perhaps things would have been better had screenwriter Cook taken just two of these guys and built the story around them.
Take the two main characters for example. You have Michael Atwood, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, as the leader of the baddies, who should be the guy we love to hate, or perhaps feel bad about, but I felt absolutely nothing for this guy. We’re supposed to feel bad for him bad for him because the mob has his son, but we never see him as a dad with his son. They have some scenes together, but they’re meaningless. On the contrary, the little kid seems to be having more fun with his aunt Irina. Plus, we’re given no background to establish what kind of relationship Michael had with the boy’s mother. Everything is all so peripheral. And on the tough guy bad guy front, Michael is a failure as very few things he does here work.
Likewise, Casey Affleck’s Chris Allen is a walking cliche. He goes around brooding, obviously unhappy with a lot of his fellow police officers (no wonder they want to kill him!) and the brief scenes where we see him with his family are pointless. We just never get to know him.
Anthony Mackie’s Marcus Belmont is even less developed than these two. Clifton Collins Jr. fares slightly better as Franco Rodriguez. At least he comes off as slightly creepy.
Woody Harrelson’s performance as Jeffrey Allen is all over the place. At times, he acts like the top cop in the precinct, but more often than not he’s a loose wire, often sounding and acting like the corrupt cops he’s trying to weed out.
And then there’s Kate Winslet. What was she doing in this movie? Irina Vlaslov comes off like a cross between Cruella Deville and Brigitte Nielsen’s Ludmilla from ROCKY IV (1985) only without any personality. I never took this character seriously.
The two best peformances in this movie belong to the two TV stars, Aaron Paul (BREAKING BAD) and Norman Reedus (THE WALKING DEAD).
Reedus delivers the best performance in the movie, hands down, with Paul right behind him, but the reason they don’t lift this movie is they’re not in it much at all. Had this film been built around these guys, these characters, the filmmakers might have had something. Reedus is icy cool as big brother Russell Welch, and in his brief screen time, he manages to do something that no one else other than Paul does in this film: he actually makes you care about his character a little bit. Incredibly, in the brief time Reedus is in this movie, he gives Russell some depth, a feeling that there’s more to this guy than just a shallow mercenary.
Paul does the same with younger brother Gabe Welch. Of all the villains, it’s Gabe who’s the most messed up, the one who struggles the most to keep it all together, and Paul does a great job with this character. Unfortunately, the movie spends very little time on these guys.
Director John Hillcoat actually does a pretty good job here. The opening robbery sequence is indeed rather riveting, and the climactic “999” scene is also very good, but there’s just so much in the middle that doesn’t work that by the time we get to that “999” scene, I didn’t really care about any of it.
For example, there’s the weak depiction of the Russian mob. How do we know this Russian mob is so deadly? Because we’re privy to quick shots of bloodied whimpering bodies in the trunks of cars. It’s certainly not because we’re privy to what the mob is up to. The plot is centered around the big heist at the end, and yet very little time is spent on what they are actually stealing or why the mob wants it so badly.
The film also never really delivers true suspense.
There’s just not a lot that works in TRIPLE 9. It wastes its very talented cast, its story is contrived, its characters undeveloped, and its execution is uneven.
Instead of calling in a 999, perhaps the folks in this movie should have dialed 911.