Tuesday, March 8, 2016

'Triple 9' review

John Hilcoat is a filmmaker who continually has the promise of delivering a masterpiece, and yet, can't quite ever seal the deal. His latest film, Triple 9, is no exception. It isn't an instant classic on the level of Heat or The Departed. The film is neither as tightly polished nor as dramatically compelling as those two masterworks. But what it ends up becoming is a solid exercise in strong B-movie filmmaking, a grimy, dirty cops-'n'-robbers thriller that will provide a spectacular diversion for a couple of hours. With the impressive directorial flair of Hilcoat, a taut and suspenseful script from rookie screenwriter Matt Cook, and a stunning cast that includes great performances from Casey Affleck, Anthony Mackie, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Woody Harrelson, Triple 9 is a late-February treat.

A dark parking lot. A cigarette is lit. Five men- Michael Atwood (Ejiofor), Marcus Belmont (Mackie), Russell Welch (Norman Reedus), Gabe Welch (Aaron Paul) and Franco Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr.)- are planning their next heist. Atwood is in the pocket of the Russian mafia, and specifically, Irina Vaslov (Kate Winslet), the terrifying wife of a mob boss who is running her husband's operation while he sits in jail. Irina's sister, Elena (Gal Gadot), is the mother of Atwood's child, leaving him in a tight position- either finish this job for Irina or never see his son again. After completing the initial job, Irina informs Michael that there's one more job she needs him to do, and if he doesn't do it, he'll die.

Meanwhile, Chris Allen (Casey Affleck) is the new cop in the rough streets of the Atlanta Police Department. Coming from the posh Buckhead region to the crime-ridden projects of the city, Chris is immediately an outcast in the slightly unorthodox unit. He's paired with Marcus, who shows Chris around and takes an immediate disliking to him. Chris and his famous cop uncle, Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson), begin to suspect that something big is going down. And they would be right. Michael's team is planning to do a 999- the cop code for "Officer Down." This would cause every officer in the city to the scene of the crime, allowing the team to execute their heist. What follows is a story full of twists and turns, with nobody sure who to trust.

Even though we're two months into the year, I'm already fairly certain that Triple 9 is going to be one of the most underrated movies of 2016. When a movie that I like get bad reviews, usually I can understand that perspective in one way or another. With Triple 9, I must say, I'm utterly perplexed as to why it's sitting at 56% on Rotten Tomatoes and 52 on Metacritic with a "C+" Cinemascore from audiences. I really just don't get it. Sure, it has weaknesses. But unless your expectations for Hilcoat's film were absolutely sky-high, I can't see anyone being disappointed by the workmanlike grit of Triple 9. It wanders occasionally in the middle section as the stories intertwine, but the story builds terrifically and by the end, I was completely engrossed by this tale of violence and corruption.

On the surface, the cast is the reason that this movie works so well. There are so many great performances in this film and all of the actors play off each other well. Casey Affleck delivers his second solid performance of the year as Chris, a determined, morally solid young cop. Affleck works as the human center- in a violent, vicious world, Chris is the audience's window in. As Marcus Belmont, Anthony Mackie counters Affleck's performance with a character filled with subtle rage and an underlying intensity. The friction between the two actors is great, and even though we don't know much about either character, it works. Clifton Collins Jr., best known for Pacific Rim, continues to demonstrate his chops as a supporting actor, bring a lot of cool swagger to the role of dirty cop Franco Rodriguez. And finally, Woody Harrelson rounds out the crew of cops in Triple 9 with his traditional mix of charm and nuance- he's the closest the movie comes to comic relief, but there's something in the eyes of Jeffrey Allen that screams ferocity.

As for the criminal crew, Chiwetel Ejiofor is by far the standout. He's one of the best working actors today, and he has quite a meaty part to work with. Unlike some of the other characters, Ejiofor's Michael Atwood has a strong emotional bend, allowing for the British actor to dig deep and deliver a soulful performance as the career criminal with a heart. Aaron Paul and Norman Reedus aren't in the film much, but both have their strong points- Reedus as the efficient, reliable getaway driver and Paul as the damaged, hard-drinking heist man. Finally, the women in Triple 9 are mostly neglected, with the lone exception of Kate Winslet. She's pretty dynamic as the fearsome mob boss, and there are some really fascinating scenes. Unfortunately, Gal Gadot and Teresa Palmer aren't given much at all to do beyond stand around and watch the action play out. All in all, a terrific ensemble effort.

However, Triple 9 is a movie that has plenty of weaknesses. The characters aren't exactly the most complex, with the exception of Atwood and a few others. The story gets a little twisted sometimes, as it can become unclear as to who's working for who, why people are doing certain things, etc. And the movie effectively stagnates for a brief period in the middle, sucking a bit of the momentum from the film. John Hilcoat sometimes struggles with keeping the laser focus that you need for a great crime drama and with such a sprawling cast, I guess it's understandable. But while Triple 9 never reaches greatness, something much more interesting happens.

Instead of making a thematically rich and potent drama, Hilcoat and screenwriter Matt Cook sacrifice that in favor of an almost archetypal cops and criminals tale that works almost like a guilty pleasure. This is the kind of film that is very much a dying breed in today's Hollywood atmosphere. Triple 9 is thoroughly grungy and filthy, filled with richly filmed sequences of gruesome violence and a messy, unclean sheen. Hilcoat elevates this with some terrifically filmed sequences, especially one absolutely brilliant tracking shot that is brimming with tension. But nonetheless, there's no polish or shine in this film- it's a movie that feels dirty and sleazy, filled with a bunch of unlikable and morally empty characters.

Triple 9 is pure pulp fiction, not in the comic sense of Tarantino's masterpiece, but in the sense of structure and style. In some ways, this flick feels like a comic book, a lost Detective Tales story from the 1950s, only with an elevated sense of viciousness. The bright reds and blazing colors of Triple 9 pop off the screen, contrasting with the gloomy atmosphere and the mostly dark cinematography of Nicolas Karakatsanis. It's essentially a film noir, with most of the action taking place in seedy bars, dimly lit parking lots, shady backrooms and chaotic police offices.

This is undoubtedly the key to Triple 9's success. While I was watching it, I felt truly drawn into the action, and in many ways, it reminded me of how Tarantino described the pulp magazines that formed the basis for Pulp Fiction. Triple 9 is brutal and wild, but you're simply addicted. Hilcoat's solid directing chops, Cook's meat-and-potatoes screenplay and the exceptional cast give this crime drama the shiny facade of prestige, but make no mistake- this is classic noir of the highest degree. It's mean, delicious greatness and I have no shame in admitting that I had a total blast with every minute of it.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B+                                            (7.8/10)

Image Credits: Variety, Fandango, NPR, Screen Rant, Joblo

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