If the first season of True Detective had found itself in Los Angeles, it might have become Triple 9. In a nearly two-hour heist flick, Australian director John Hillcoat (Lawless, The Proposition) moves around A-list actors like chess pieces. Yes, we’ve seen a group of police officers cross over to the dark side of criminality before, but we’ve never seen it quite like this.
Two corrupt cops, Anthony Mackie and Clifton Collins Jr.’s Marcus and Franco, team with ex-paramilitary types Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Russell (Norman Reedus), and Gabe (Aaron Paul) to rob a bank at the insistence of a deposed Mafia boss’ wife, Irina (Kate Winslet). Irina’s motivation is the liberation of her husband from prison; the rest are in it for the money… except for Michael. [Michael’s motivations are a little fuzzier, but they involve his relationship with Irina’s sister and their child.]
On the side of the angels – at least, in Triple 9 – are Marcus’ new partner, Chris (Casey Affleck), and his police officer uncle, Jeffrey (Woody Harrelson). They begin to suspect that police officers are involved in the initial robbery; a secondary robbery of a higher security target leads the robbers to set up a ‘triple 9 scenario,’ that is, an officer-involved shooting. [In the process of Jeffrey’s investigation, he interrogates a snitch named ‘Sweet Pea’ played by the always engaging Michael K. Williams in a very unexpected presentation of his acting chops.]
While Ejiofor, Affleck, and Harrelson have made their bones in several heady, gritty thrillers, the surprise turn here was Winslet’s ability to carry the heavy role of the sweet-and-sour Russian mob mistress-turned-boss. This is a far cry from the role of Rose… Her interplay with Ejiofor’s Michael is spectacularly dark, adding a more than believable motivation for how the thin line between the heroes and the villains plays out.
[My one complaint for the film is that the filmography is so dark it sometimes lends itself to obscuring even the moments we don’t want to miss. While that seems relatively moot, it still begs for a slightly lighter hand at the cinematographic level.]
Affleck’s portrayal is less nuanced than it is in The Finest Hours; he’s not asked to do as much, but somehow, his presentation here ends up being part of a smarter, more compelling story that keeps us engaged throughout. We know he’s the good guy because he proves to be “pure of heart,” while the rest of these characters,, they’re all different stages of gray to black.
In the end, Triple 9 proved to be a satisfying thrill ride, a mashup of cat-and-mouse with theft, revenge, and morality codes.