My first thought when the credits rolled on “Triple 9” was simply “That’s it?” There had to be more. There wasn’t. How did this movie go so…… Bad isn’t the right word. “Triple 9” is not bad. Its cast is too committed and director John Hillcoat carries too much auteurist swagger for it to be bad. No, what’s noticeable about “Triple 9” is the insistent averageness of the narrative. This is Matt Cook’s first feature length screenplay and it draws from hundreds of other crime thrillers far less pedigreed, duplicating plot points but rarely expanding, content to ignore exploration of its myriad characters’ potentially fascinating nooks and crannies to instead wheezily wind its way through telegraphed twists to a conclusion so uninspired that all the blood by this point looks like nothing more than the few ounces of red food coloring it probably is.
Red is the color du jour of “Triple 9”, whether it’s a dye pack that explodes in the rousing heist that essentially kicks off the movie or the New Orleans-y red of a lewd club a few characters visit that suggests a whole other world undulating just out of sight. The most spectacular red, however, belongs to the enflamed crimson boots Kate Winslet wears as Irina Vlaslov, a Russian/Israeli mob boss and a triumph of wardrobe, with her hair blown back and her eye shadow reaching Lady Gaga At The Super Bowl levels. Her character’s wardrobe is so garish that Winslet smartly takes her attitude and mannerisms in the opposite direction, lording over everyone like a sartorially explosive PTA mom who knows just what buttons to push to manage her bidding. “I believe that woman would eat her young,” Charlton Heston said of Cameron Diaz in “Any Given Sunday.” But no – she wouldn’t. Irina? She would, with some nice malabi and kosher wine.
Alas, “Triple 9” is too much a man’s world, and even Irina must report back to the bigger boss, which is her husband who is locked up and requires a couple MacGuffins – a bank lockbox and a batch of Homeland Security files – to get out. To acquire them, Irina hires a tight-knit crew comprised of an ex-military man, Michael, two brothers and a pair of crooked cops, Franco (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Marcus (Anthony Mackie). The latter winds up saddled with a do-gooder of a partner, Chris (Casey Affleck), who just so happens to be the son of the eccentric detective Jeffrey (Woody Harrelson) who’s tracking this band of robbers.
It would be intriguing to know why these once good men turned bad, if the institutions of military and law enforcement correlated directly to their heel turns, but such ideas are merely hinted at as Hillcoat rarely seeks to ground his characters’ motivations in anything other than orthodox pulp. Who they are is never as important as what they are, and what they are primarily boils down to how can we advance the plot. Like, if you have a family in “Triple 9”, rest assured, it’s not so they can be loved and cared for but so they can hang around to be employed as leverage.
Throughout Hillcoat teases larger questions, such as a sequence amidst a police raid in which a cop car is doused in colorful paint out of protest, a shot paired almost immediately with an officer of the law covered head-to-toe in that same paint, a striking evocation of the tenuous relationship police and those supposedly under their jurisdiction have. The film, however, never pushes it, never seeks to explore its potentially intriguing Atlanta canvas, one rife with Latino gang culture, preferring to take cover in a mechanized plot that ultimately finds one bad dude going around eliminating other bad dudes, the ten millionth milquetoast variation of Jimmy the Gent cleaning house in “Goodfellas.”
While most of the cast is gravely serious, determined to see this genre exercise through to the end, Harrelson, going all in on peculiarity with slurred line readings and wobbly footsteps, like he’s stoned all the time, which his character pretty much is, seems to be the one actor existing in the same universe as Winslet, as if they are two who detected the script’s breakdown from afar and went about adding necessary flavor on their own. While she sports a Star of David, he wears a Stars & Stripes tie, and these taken in conjunction with the omnipresent cross of Affleck’s character would seem to symbolize…..something. Who knows?
“Triple 9” is the sort of movie that goes heavy on symbols without seeking in any meaningful way to append the “ism”; it’s symbols are just vacuous trinkets. The only symbol that really winds up amounting to much of anything in “Triple 9” is the leftover joint Harrelson’s Jeffrey digs out of the trash and lights up to get his fix. How else in a movie like this are you gonna have any fun?