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Triple 9: A Defiant, Stripped-Down, Neo-Noir Action Flick

John Hillcoat's latest film is a fun, nihilistic romp through genre cliché.

Open Road Films

Triple 9 belongs in the same category as other recent neo-noirs such as Killing Them Softly and The Counselor. I mean that as praise, but I suspect that Open Road Films, which is releasing Triple 9 this Friday, won’t love the comparison. For one thing, those other movies received mixed-to-poisonous reviews from critics; for another, audiences stayed away from those other films’ oddness. Viewers may not flock to this Atlanta-set crime-thriller either, despite a formidable cast. But for those who like their films flecked with nihilism—you who don’t consider originality to be the most important criterion for good genre flicks—this snarling mutt of a movie’s bite is as big as its bark. Everyone else would do well to stay as far away from Triple 9 as possible. 

This is an ensemble piece in which almost everybody sports an accent, a goofy mannerism, and/or a super-macho attitude. The characters are all different degrees of gonzo badass, and the cast responds by acting the hell out of their parts, having a ball submerging themselves in this lurid world of crooked cops and shady criminals.

Casey Affleck serves as our moral compass. He’s Chris Allen, a cop who’s just been transferred from one of Atlanta’s cushiest neighborhoods to the city’s gang task force, where he’s partnered with the cocky, steely Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie). Belmont immediately chafes at the idea of working with some soft white boy. 

But there are plenty of layers to Triple 9’s onion, which director John Hillcoat and writer Matt Cook quickly start peeling. Unbeknownst to Chris, Marcus is actually part of a team of thieves—many of whom (like Clifton Collins Jr. and Aaron Paul) are or were on the Atlanta police force—that just knocked off their latest bank earlier that day. They’re led by Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who served in Iraq as part of U.S. Special Forces with several members of the team. Michael is a cool, calm, confident criminal, but he has a weakness: He’s in deep with a Russian crime family spearheaded by the gloriously named Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet) while her husband rots in prison. Michael has a young son with Irina’s sister (Gal Gadot), and Irina uses the boy as emotional blackmail, forcing Michael and his crew to pull off one more heist before she’ll pay them the money they’re owed.

Meanwhile, Chris’s screw-loose detective uncle Jeffrey (Woody Harrelson) is investigating this bank heist, unaware that the perpetrators are on the force—and that they’re planning on using Chris as a diversion to execute their next job. Michael’s gang decides to kill Chris and make it look like a random shooting, which will trigger a 999—the police call sign to indicate that a cop has been wounded—and send the rest of the force to the scene. While Atlanta’s finest rush to Chris’s aid, Michael’s team can carry off their heist on the opposite side of town. 

Unlike Killing Them Softly and The Counselor, which were more about their aggressively off-kilter tone than any semblance of a tight plot, Triple 9 is a relatively straightforward thriller, with juicy twists and propulsive action sequences that are more akin to mainstream crime epics like Heat and The Departed. But like those two neo-noirs, Hillcoat’s movie operates on its own insular wavelength, its characters so soldered to their hyper-violent, hair-trigger environment that they use a shorthand with one another—Hillcoat never bothers worrying about whether we can keep up. Calling to mind the great, labyrinthine thrillers David Mamet used to make, Triple 9 is a salute to tough guys doing their jobs well. Much of the audience’s fascination comes from the desire to penetrate the characters’ ecosystem: To see how it works, and walk around in it for a little while. 

This sort of unsparing, man’s-man register is not new for Hillcoat. He seems to prefer movies where a pitiless sky hangs heavy over cursed characters, usually male, who are left to wander through hostile surroundings in the vain hope of finding some faint whiff of redemption. (Hillcoat directed The Proposition, The Road, and Lawless.) If my description sounds a little purple, that’s nothing compared to how overblown his movies are. They treat testosterone as both toxic hazard and crucial currency in order to survive among the wolves. 

With the kind of résumé he has, Hillcoat shouldn’t be trusted with Triple 9—he’s almost certainly doomed to romanticize these criminals and their macho codes of loyalty and family. While you certainly get a strong dose of masculine self-pity in Triple 9, happily, it’s not quite as much as you might have feared. What probably helps are Cook’s plot machinations and his wealth of characters: Hillcoat must contend with enough logistical busywork that he can’t obsess over his trite pet themes, and instead has to focus on the simple task of telling a taut story well. In some ways, this is Hillcoat’s most impersonal, polished film, but the lack of an auteurist stamp saves the director from himself, reining in his indulgences without sacrificing the B-movie thrills inherent to the material.

Does a movie as battering-ram blunt as Triple 9 have anything profound or fresh to say about urban poverty, economic disparity, the criminal mindset, or our troops’ hard road back to civilian life? Of course not. What’s best about the film is that it doesn’t feel the need to justify its dark outlook with any sort of underlying message. The darkness is the point, and Hillcoat’s actors are wholly comfortable working in the shadows.

Affleck may be Triple 9’s rooting interest, but Chris has got an edge to him, too, refusing to be intimidated by Marcus and more than capable of leading dangerous home raids on heavily armed criminals. An actor who often radiates a twitchy unease, Affleck plays Chris as a still-idealistic young man. We sense that his mindset has been battle-tested and hard-earned, however—there’s nothing sweet or naïve about Chris, and his belief in wanting to do some good in the world appears to have been challenged plenty by what he’s seen on the streets, whether it’s from crooks or cops. Chris has survived in his job because he’s learned how to fortify his decency with a kill-or-be-killed instinct, a quality that becomes increasingly important as Triple 9 rolls along.

The film’s subplots are like different rocks that you kick over to see something slithering underneath. Ejiofor eschews his character’s gentleman-criminal clichés for something far realer and more modest. Michael isn’t some diabolical genius; he doesn’t have some super-constructed worldview that “explains” his lawless life. He’s just some guy—a really smart guy—and this world is the only one he seems to know, so he’s going to keep doing it until he figures something else out. There’s a refreshing lack of self-reflection in Triple 9: Why bother psychoanalyzing oneself when there’s usually someone around the corner ready to shoot you?

Some of the supporting players get trapped in the quicksand of their pulpy roles—Aaron Paul overdoes his drugged-out, screwed-up lowlife—but Triple 9 never lets you forget that these pungent, sinewy people all deserve one another. Chris is our hero, but partly because of his flamboyant, bitter, drunken uncle—the only other good cop in sight—he has no illusions about what’s necessary to stay alive. This isn’t one of those movies that wrings its hands about anything so genteel as whether or not its central character is going to “lose his soul.” The characters in Triple 9 made those kinds of decisions long ago—now, it’s time for each of them to carry out their part in this twisty, absorbing, defiantly stripped-down thriller. It’s not a question of good triumphing over evil. It’s more a matter of figuring out how much evil any one person can tolerate at one time.

Grade: B+ 

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film, Grierson & Leitch. Follow them on Twitter @griersonleitch or visit their site,