Action-packed but chained to a tangled and confusing cops-and-corruption tale, “Triple 9” leaves few bodies standing once the credits roll.
Fortunately, the film’s ensemble cast features a fine bunch of actors. Even in the bloody muddle that is “Triple 9,” Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Woody Harrelson and Kate Winslet manage to make a few scenes count.
New Orleans native Mackie (“The Night Before,” “Ant-Man”) puts everything into his performance as dirty Atlanta police detective Marcus Belmont. Mackie makes his bad cop a troubled, angry man on the edge, swinging between jubilantly gangsta and wrenchingly conflicted.
The bravura, rage and guilt Mackie conveys within his single character probably drew him to the part. In the end, the actor’s work is admirable but the misfired movie he inhabits is not. The same goes for performances by the film’s other high-profile thespians.
Mackie and his crew of bad cops and ex-special forces operators are beholden to the Russian Jewish mob. Led by the crimson-attired Winslet, the vicious Russians bully Mackie’s crew into performing a series of perilous robberies. The jobs include a downtown Atlanta bank. According to the “Triple 9” screenplay, the inside-the-game talents of police officers and former special ops make such high-risk heists possible.
“Triple 9” director Australian John Hillcoat specializes in violent films that have high body counts. His previous work includes the apocalypse drama “The Road” and Depression-era bootlegging shootout “Lawless.” Both are better than “Triple 9.”
But “Triple 9” is very much a Hillcoat product. The tone is overwhelmingly grim. The bad guys are merciless. The good guys are as bad as the villains. They can even be the villains.
In the gratuitously splattered “Triple 9,” Hillcoat throws everything he’s got on the screen, possibly because he wants to mask how impossible to follow the story is. There are too many characters — Mackie’s cops and robbers, the Russian mobsters, a vast Mexican gang and the Atlanta police team led by Harrelson. This leaves no room for the story to breathe.
Casey Affleck, the movie’s top-billed actor, is another major flaw. Affleck plays Mackie’s new detective partner, Chris Allen. On screen together, Affleck and Mackie are hot and cold. Mackie brings the fire. Affleck’s oddly laidback performance barely registers. It’s a non-performance that doesn’t fit this more-often-than-not sizzling crime drama.
Moving to other cast members, Ejiofor (“12 Years a Slave)” co-stars as a member of Mackie’s crew. Ejiofor and his mournful face match Mackie’s inner torture. His character, an ex-special forces member, sweats mightily over his separation from his young son, whose mother is intimately connected to the Russians.
Winslet, whose performance in “Steve Jobs” earned an Oscar nomination, gives another of “Triple 9’s” commendable performances. As Russian mafia queen Irina Vlaslov, the actress almost humorously lords it over Irina’s world. Winslet, dressed in her character’s trashy wardrobe, obviously enjoys being so irredeemably bad.
It’s easy to see, too, why Harrelson succumbed to the role of Detective Jeffrey Allen. The character recalls the police detective Harrelson played in a much richer police drama, HBO’s “True Detective.” Harrelson couldn’t resist the opportunity to play a colorful bad cop/substance abusing character. The actor also gets to be the soliloquy-style center of attention in a big, angry “Triple 9” scene.
Norman Reedus, a popular cast member of AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” also shows up, but soon disappears. His fans will be disappointed.
Another mistake “Triple 9” makes is its jarring inclusion of jolting action sequences straight out of an Iraqi or Afghanistan war movie. A long sequence of room-to-room pursuit by police in an apartment complex plays like “The Hurt Locker” and “American Sniper” déjà vu. Also, the backstory about the film’s former military and special ops characters is too poorly explained to mean anything.
“Triple 9” had promise, chiefly due to its director and hardworking cast. But in a gloomy maze of characters crowded onto a too slight frame, this crime drama gets lost and never found.