Let it be know that I’m a massive John Hillcoat fan. Every since the Australian filmmaker emerged on the international scene in 2006 with his fever dream outback western The Proposition, I was absolutely hooked. The cinematic brilliance continued in 2009 with the ambitious adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a movie about a father and son surviving after the fall of man, which was determined to drag all the tears in my body out for all to see. He followed that up with 2012’s Lawless, another adaptation, this time of Matt Bondurant’s novel The Wettest County in the World, a depression era film about a group of brothers bootlegging alcohol. To me, Hillcoat was an unstoppable and formidable director from whom I cherished every frame of film.
Triple 9 marks a very different sort of film from the Aussie, a story that is set in the modern age in the southern states, Georgia to be exact. Lawless featured a large cast, including Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman and Hillcoat staple Guy Pearce. Triple 9 looks to be just as big, or maybe slightly bigger, with Chiwetel Ejiofor, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Kate Winslet and, really, the list goes on and on, a real shopping list of some of the greatest talent working today. With such an eclectic cast and a gritty and violent story, Triple 9 was ramping up to be the best John Hillcoat has done yet.
The film is a combination of many different threads of plots. Ejiofor plays Michael, a former special ops soldier who now leads a group of some of his former colleagues in a bank robbing enterprise, all for the interim boss of a Russian crime family, Irina Vlaslov (Winslet). Irina is employing Michael to steal all the pieces needed to secure the release of her husband, the main boss, from a Russian gulag. Cutthroat and ruthless, she and her squad, a group of well dressed Israeli soldiers, leave a blood trail of massacred bodies and bags of pulled teeth. These people are not to be messed with.
Two of the members of Michael’s crew also happen to be police officers, Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Atwood (Anthony Mackie), who are forced into a hard decision when their final job requires a massive distraction for the rest of the police department. The only way for all the attention to be diverted from their robbery, they must make a triple nine happen, which is the shooting death of a police officer. This puts Atwood’s new partner Chris (Casey Affleck) in the crosshairs. The only thing that could go wrong is if Chris’s uncle, Sergeant Detective Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson), can unravel these dirty cops in time.
I feel so disappointed to be writing the next words I’m putting down for you, the reader, to take in. I think my expectation for this film simply crushed me in how I took in this film. To me, unfortunately, the film only came off as so so. There was a confused mess of character exposition in the first act that really under cuts how well put together the first bank heist scene in the movie is. Scenes feel clipped and short, originality is shelved in order to play up the intimidation factor in each of these characters and no one in this film feels like anyone you could latch onto and root for. The result is a story that just plays out in front of you with no consequence or emotion, something that is almost foreign in a conversation about John Hillcoat’s earlier work.
This isn’t to say it’s badly acted or dull at all. Each actor really brings a lot to their performances, even if some of them are just playing off of roles that they have already been close to, like Collins playing a dirty cop again or Harrelson channeling a little bit of Rampart in his character. There is also some brilliant set pieces, like the aforementioned robbery and a raid on an apartment complex that hits an unexpectedly explosive level of combat. These parts are wholly entertaining but show nothing of the caliber I know this filmmaker to be.
I think that’s my biggest problem with Triple 9, as it seemed John Hillcoat’s identity as a storyteller and filmmaker took a back seat to showing a gritty heist film peppered with dirty cop politics. It seemed this film could have be made by almost any American action director, almost screaming that it was a rejected David Ayer movie. If I went into this film unknowing that it was a John Hillcoat film and told, instead, that it was another Street Kings-esque film from Ayer, I would have been none the wiser and that simple fact alone leaves a bad taste in my mouth. From Hillcoat, I expect nothing but the best and, really, this wasn’t it.
As I finish off my review of Triple 9, I really don’t want to see like I didn’t like the movie because I really did enjoy it. My mistake was letting previous successes marr my perception of a new venture and one that I thought was really nothing special. There is incredible detail in a lot of the set pieces but limited focus on anything of substance and it leaves you a little cold in the end. Nothing lost, nothing gained and I was just wishing I was left with a little more to chew on and for that I go back into my blu-ray collection for another look at The Road. I give Triple 9 a three out of five.