The last really good movie I saw about rogue cops was "Training Day" (2001) with Denzel Washington. "Triple 9", the new film from director John Hillcoat (collaborator with three others for "The Road"), is decidedly not in the same class as Denzel's picture, which resulted in his only Best Actor Oscar.
The opening sequence of "Triple 9" is a high-tech, frenetic bank robbery with masked men who take some cash as a sidebar to their real mission --- the contents of a particular safety deposit box which Russian-Israeli mobsters (also called the Kosher Mafia) want badly. But when the robbers try to collect their reward for the heist, Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet, with an acceptable Russian accent), the mob's sexy, chain-smoking vamp, informs them they must complete another job so she can free her husband from a foreign prison.
"Triple 9" surely has its moments of high tension. Dirty cops in Atlanta find themselves in a life-or-death predicament with the Russians. It's a case of whom can you trust, and in this film there is no honor among thieves. Chiwetel Ejifor, a former Special Forces soldier, plays the leader of the bad cop brigade, which also includes Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul and Clifton Collins Jr. One of this crew turns into a purely evil police officer, the main clue when he admits he would have no qualms about killing one of his own.
The term "triple 9", a.k.a. "999", is police code for "officer down". While newbie detective Chris Allen (Casey Affleck) gathers evidence about the bank job --- challenging street thugs along the way --- he and his heavy-drinking detective uncle, Jeff (Woody Harrelson), are unaware a plot is afoot to create a phony "999". This will assure the good cops are distracted while the aforementioned "other job" can be accomplished. If this sounds slightly convoluted, it is, written by Matt Cook in his feature length debut.
"Triple 9" is predictably violent --- get a babysitter for the little ones lest they have nightmares about three lopped off heads on the hood of a car, or bloodied people locked in a trunk with severed fingers in a baggie. A night watchman gets his foot blown off by an explosive, and another has an even more powerful bomb attached to his forehead. Quentin Tarantino
would be proud, but do we really need this endless string of street crime depicted on film?
Some of the goings-on in "Triple 9" are simply too far-fetched. When Harrelson's character is staring death in the face, he calmly lights up a joint, which he does frequently in the film, and smiles as if everything is all right.
The movie does have a few surprises, and the well-shot action scenes are accompanied by a decent score from four contributors. But I wanted more from Affleck as the top-billed star. He is such a good actor, yet inexplicably he is not given enough to do on an heroic level. The movie cries out for a central figure, and Affleck's character should have been it.
Winslet looks like she's having a good time in a role that's a departure from her normal screen work. Her every appearance brightens up the gloomy atmosphere. Ejifor's Michael Atwood is not fully developed, and despite having a young son, no sympathy is generated for him. The only really memorable performance, in a cameo, goes to Michael Kenneth Williams ("Boardwalk Empire") as Sweet Pea, a transvestite who trades street info for cash with Uncle Jeff.
"Triple 9" is the familiar, unsuccessful formula of a strong cast with a script that doesn't quite measure up. This group of actors deserves better.
Opinion: Wait for DVD