Despite possessing a cast bursting at the seams with A-list talent, Triple Nine has been dumped into multiplexes on Oscar weekend with limited publicity and less marketing. However, although the film's distributor may view it as a White Elephant, Triple Nine turns out to be a thoroughly entertaining (although violent) thriller. With relentless intensity, director John Hillcoat (The Road, Lawless) takes us on a journey through the seedy underground of Russian mobsters, dirty cops, and bloody heists on its way to a nihilistic conclusion.
As grim as the setting may be and as flawed as many of the characters are, Triple Nine gives us someone to root for: Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), the one honest police officer in a basket of bad apples. The rotten ones include his new partner, Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie), and a homicide detective, Jorge Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr.). They're on a robbery team that also features ex-military operatives Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Russel Welch (Norman Reedus) as well as Russel's younger brother, ex-cop Gabe (Aaron Paul). The crew is currently working for Russian mobster Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet), who uses a carrot-and-stick approach to get what she wants. When a high-profile bank robbery nets her only half of what she needs to free her imprisoned husband, she withhold payments until Michael agrees to do another job. This one is ugly in that it requires a cop to be shot (the theory being that when the "999" call goes out, the entire force will be so focused on apprehending the shooter that the response time for the robbery will be slow). Meanwhile, Chris' uncle, Sgt. Detective Jeff Allen (Woody Harrelson), begins investigating the case.
Hillcoat's approach is to craft a pulse-pounding experience that employs a mixture of conventional footage and hand-held work. There's an immediacy to the most gripping scenes. Viewers will never be comfortable about the life expectancy of any character. The pallet is neo-noir: dark and grimy - an Atlanta not usually visited by tourists. The score, credited to four composers (Atticus Ross, Claudia Sarne, Leopold Ross, Bobby Krlic), is the perfect throbbing accompaniment to the visuals and action. There's not a lot of dead space in Triple Nine and it rarely pauses for exposition. At its best, it recalls The Wire and True Detective.
Unfortunately, not everything works. The ending in particular is problematic. Rushed and not entirely satisfying, it feels like it might have been reworked in the editing room to "punch up" certain elements. The concern might have been that a more complete resolution could have resulted in an anticlimax but the final fifteen minutes are not as strong as the 100 minutes that precede them.
For the most part, the cast is well chosen. Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Anthony Mackie in particular are effective. Although this is a testosterone-fueled film, there are some nice supporting female performances - Gal Gadot as Michael's mistress, Teresa Palmer as Chris' supportive wife, and Michelle Ang as Jeff's assistant. The one notable casting mistake is Kate Winslet. Playing a part originally given to Cate Blanchett, Winslet struggles with her accent and never really nails the character's dark side. Irina feels like a carbon copy of the cartoonish villain Winslet essayed in Divergent and its sequel. Had she been a man, we would have been on the lookout for a Snidely Whiplash mustache twirl.
Don't let the release date or limited advertising be a deterrent. Triple Nine is worth the price of admission for those who don't mind violence, blood, and more than a few curse words. A suspenseful mixture of adrenaline and testosterone with a chaser of neo-noir cynicism, it's as engaging as thrillers come this time of year.
© 2016 James Berardinelli