The Austin Chronicle

Triple 9

Rated R, 115 min. Directed by John Hillcoat. Starring Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Woody Harrelson, Kate Winslet, Aaron Paul, Clifton Collins Jr., Gal Gadot, Norman Reedus, Teresa Palmer, Michael K. Williams, Michelle Ang.

REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Feb. 26, 2016

The grimy policier Triple 9 starts off with a bang. A daring daylight bank robbery goes without a hitch until the getaway hits a major bump on an Atlanta freeway, necessitating an off-script exit in which the perpetrators are almost caught literally red-handed. It’s a thrilling sequence that pumps adrenaline into a movie in which everything is constantly on edge. As it turns out, the criminals are a cadre of cops and ex-cops moonlighting as henchmen for a cutthroat Russian Mafia princess (a nearly unrecognizable Winslet), who bankrolled the heist in order to retrieve the mysterious contents of a safety deposit box. But when she orders a second, more dangerous assignment – the theft of some computer disks from the vault of an Office of Homeland Security facility – they plan the decoy killing of a rookie cop (an uncomfortably bulked-up Affleck) in another part of the city to distract law enforcement and give them sufficient time to pull off the riskier job. (The film’s title references the police code for a downed officer.) What ensues is an intricate plotline of shifting alliances, uncertain loyalties, and double-crosses that hangs by more than one dangling thread. By the end, Triple 9 is anything but by the numbers, a frustrating head-scratcher sabotaged by its narrative ambition.

It’s too bad things wind up that way, because the film has promise. Aussie director John Hillcoat (The Road, Lawless) knows his way around a car chase and a shootout, giving the tense action scenes a sense of palpable immediacy. The cast is first-rate, with Chiwetel Ejiofor and Anthony Mackie giving the movie its twisted heart in their roles of good guys gone bad. (As the conscience-stricken, drug-addicted squad member who attempts to foil the murder, however, Aaron Paul is terribly wasted. He’s a cut-rate version of Jesse Pinkman here.) Ultimately, the film is undone by Matt Cook’s screenplay, which hangs together fairly well in the first hour or so and then begins to kink in a series of contrivances and coincidences that defy rational explanation once you ponder them. Why do so many screenwriters think more is better when everyone knows (or should know) that simplicity and brevity make for the airtight storyline? These over-plotters keep upping the ante until they’re out of chips. As in Triple 9 and so many other films today, the twists and turns of the contemporary thriller have become a Gordian knot that audiences are not invited to untangle. You may rightfully ask: Where’s the fun in that?

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