Saturday 30 November 2019

Movie Review: Triple 9 (2016)

A crime thriller, Triple 9 features stellar action set-pieces, but also a large cast struggling against a convoluted and context-free plot.

In Atlanta, Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor) leads a gang of ex-military types conducting high-risk heists for Russian crime lord Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet), who holds Michael's young son as leverage. He calls upon corrupt cops Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Franco (Clifton Collins Jr.) to join his crew to steal a bank safety deposit box. Detective Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson) starts to investigate, while Irina demands Michael immediately start planning a follow-up theft of critical records from a Homeland Security building.

Jeffrey's nephew Chris (Casey Affleck) is an honest cop and Marcus' new partner. They tangle with a group of tough street gang members, including Luis Pinto (Luis Da Silva). To create a diversion for the Homeland Security heist, Michael's crew decide an "officer down, code triple 9" incident is required to draw police resources to the wrong side of town. Chris is selected as the victim to be shot, but little will go according to plan.

Triple 9 features three well-executed action set-pieces, neatly placed at the start, middle and near the end of the film. The first establishes the pace with Michael's gang pulling off the audacious bank break-in followed by an insane car chase. The second is an incidental but still impressive house search followed by a street chase and fire fight as Chris and Marcus go after a member of Pinto's gang in a hostile neighbourhood. And the finale is the double whammy of the code triple 9 incident overlapping with the Homeland Security theft.

In these scenes director John Hillcoat excels in delivering cohesive thrills, but the film struggles during all the in-between sections. The Matt Cook script drops in on all the characters essentially mid-flight and never pauses to set a meaningful context. The people, places and relationships are sketched in using the broadest of strokes, and as a result it is exceptionally difficult to care about any of them.

The central plot supposedly driving all the action involves the evil Irina attempting to free her barely-seen but highly influential husband from an overseas prison by getting her hands on some vaguely defined records, a classic example of a hastily slapped together, needlessly complicated yet still utterly flimsy MacGuffin.

The effort to portray Michael as a victim lands with an unconvincing thud, his semi-hostaged child (the mother is Irina's more chill sister Elena, played by Gal Gadot) a lame device to garner sympathy. Chris is supposed to emerge as the honest core of the story but he is dramatically under-defined, while a myriad of greasy bad guys, bad cops, and bad guys who are ex-cops, all with labyrinthine personal connections, clutter the screen. By the time it becomes clearer who is who, most of them are dead anyway.

Woody Harrelson adds his distinctive brand of caring by not caring, here as a drug-addicted detective unpeeling the rash of daring heists, while Kate Winslet's turn as a Russian mob boss borders on cartoonish.

Triple 9 does feature a triple header of accomplished highlights, but these are strung together with saggy material.

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