Triple 9 opens with an extraordinarily well executed bank heist, both from the team of ex-soldiers breaking in to steal a safety deposit box and from director John Hillcoat and a great many talented people in his cast and crew. But the bank robbers make a single mistake, or at least one of their crew does, in getting greedy and snatching a pile of cash. The money has a red dye pack that explodes as they’re racing away and they ultimately have to abandon their vehicle on a bridge and engage in an intense shootout to escape.
It’s a thrilling, violent and tensely crafted opening that sets up the kind of hard boiled criminal world that Hillcoat and writer Matt Cook are interested in exploring in Triple 9. But their scrutiny of dark and seedy characters doesn’t stop with obvious criminals and we quickly realise that two of the bank robbers are actually cops and that even those on the right side of the law, such as Sergeant Detective Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson), are hardly squeaky clean.
Cook’s script takes a pretty dim view of humanity, or perhaps it simply reflects a rather dark reality, and the city of Atlanta has never seemed quite so grim and on the edge of exploding into violence at any moment. Shot on location in the Georgian city, Triple 9 has an embedded feel that Hillcoat and co. have carefully curated, using a number of small details to ensure the film lands in a manner that comes across much like heightened reality. Subtle inclusions, such as Anthony Mackie’s Marcus playing Georgia locals Migos and 2 Chainz in his cop car, add texture that elevates the somewhat generic material and keeps it from feeling too familiar.
Triple 9 is at times far too much about simply elevating generic material though, with characters, scenarios and twists all plucked from other crime thrillers. But Hillcoat’s assured direction, Atticus Ross’ superbly brooding and tense score and an incredibly solid ensemble of actors keeps the film engaging and enjoyable, even when you get the nagging feeling that you’ve seen it all before.
There’s also a moment towards the end of Triple 9 that really highlights something that’s severely lacking throughout. Kate Winslet’s Russian-Jewish mob boss Irina Vlaslov spits at the leader of the bank robbers, played with a reasonably convincing amount of tortured angst by Chiwetel Ejiofor, that “We both worship at the same altar”. It’s a reference to money and greed, but also taps into the significant amount of religious imagery in the film - Vlaslov is clearly marked out as Jewish and every possible opportunity and there are also a number of crucifixes. But none of this really coalesces into a clear theme.
There are also a number of allusions to race - the setting of Atlanta seems like a particularly interesting choice for exploring this - but again these come to nothing, as the filmmakers leave a number of threads of interesting ideas left hanging.
Triple 9 is a solid crime thriller and one that frequently grips and thrills you, but once you’re free of its grasp it doesn’t leave you with a great deal to think about.
Reviewed by Craig Skinner
Triple 9. USA 2016. Directed by John Hillcoat. Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Casey Affleck, Anthony Mackie, Kate Winslet, Gal Gadot...
Out in the UK on the 19th of February, and in the USA on the 26th of February