Triple 9 really wants you to think it’s a better film than it is. And frankly, given its star-studded cast, intriguing premise, and with acclaimed Aussie director John Hillcoat calling the shots, it should be. Which only makes it all the more disappointing when it misses the mark by as much as it does. Underdeveloped characters, a convoluted plot and a waste of some incredible talent, Triple 9 is basically a case study in what could’ve been.
Triple 9 is the story of a group of dirty cops who are part of a conspiracy with the Russian mob to orchestrate a heist. Because of the time it would take to perform the heist, the cops decide they need the rest of the police force distracted. The best way to do this, they decide, would be to trigger a 999 incident, the code given when an officer is downed in action. The thinking is that the police would be so distracted, keen to get themselves a piece of the cop-killer, that the heist could go off relatively easily and without interruption.
And that could have been an intriguing premise! The supposition that all other crime goes unchecked when there’s a 999 is a bit of a stretch, but it could’ve been overlooked if the rest of the plot held up. Unfortunately, though screenwriter Matt Cook, with his first feature film, has tried for complexity with his multiple interweaving subplots, it ends up convoluted and confusing with plot threads left dangling and half-explained.
As an example of the needless complication, the main man behind the heist, Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor), spearheads it because mob matriarch Irina (Kate Winslet) is blackmailing him by holding his son, who is also her nephew, hostage. Irina needs the contents of the vault in order to trade for the release of her husband, who is himself being held hostage by some other organisation.
And of course this raises questions: What is the significance of the contents of the vault? Why is Irina’s husband being held? Why does the Mafia not do it themselves? These are all questions that are barely skimmed over and leave the crux of the plot hollow. If Triple 9 wasn’t going to follow through and explore these strands of the plot, then there should’ve been some simplification so that the questions didn’t play on the viewer’s mind.
This also could be forgiven to an extent if the characters were somewhat interesting. However, we instead end up with a series of interchangeable men desperately wanting for personalities and motivations. Early on, there are attempts to give a sense of everyone through a series of short scenes. However, they end up providing proper insight into no one, and, for much of the film, that’s how it remains for most of the cast. This actually becomes increasingly frustrating throughout. As the Mafia and cops clash, and frictions within the group of dirty cops rise, their actions become more dramatic, but their choices seem random and nonsensical, because we haven’t been given an opportunity to understand their motivations.
The only person who actually gets to sink their teeth into a character to any depth is Anthony Mackie as Marcus, one of the corrupt cops. Best known for his role in The Hurt Locker and as Falcon in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Mackie works particularly well with his conflicted character arc, where his original indifference about turning on his new partner (Casey Affleck) slowly comes to tear him up inside, with his inner torture palpable and compelling at times.
Apart from Mackie though, most seem bored, and are often burdened by some clumsy dialogue. Winslet and Ejiofor in particular, an Oscar winner and nominee respectively, are basically in autopilot, justifiably aware that they are much better than what’s on offer here. Even the usually reliable Woody Harrelson falls into stereotype as the been-there, seen-that older detective Jeffrey Allen.
There are a couple of decent action scenes, particularly as Affleck and Mackie’s characters chase a Mexican cartel member through an apartment block and through the streets, but they’re too few and far apart to make up for everything in between. It’s a shame, because everyone involved, both in front of and behind the camera, is capable of better. Triple 9 unfortunately fails to create any interesting characters, wastes a good premise on a nonsensical plot, and is virtually dead on arrival.