The latest bank robbery thriller comes courtesy of director John Hillcoat (Lawless, The Road) who is known for his gritty action sequences.
The bank robbers in Triple 9 are a rag-tag group that includes dirty Atlanta cops and two ex-military mercenaries. The group’s roles are never defined but they’re led by Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Of course the group includes the familiar cinematic stereotypes – The Alpha Male aka Michael; The Hot Head aka Franco (Clifton Collins Jr); The Drug Addict aka Gabe (Aaron Paul); The Guy with the Conscious aka Marcus (Anthony Mackie); The Brothers aka Gabe and Russell (Norman Reedus); The BFFs aka Michael and Russell.
The story opens with crew robbing a bank for a safety deposit box. After narrowly escaping that robbery, Michael learns his group not getting paid from the Russians for the job they completed, but there is a second job they need to pull off and then they’ll get their payment plus more. The second job is almost impossible and requires more time than the usual 3-4 minute window. Out of desperation, the crew maps out a plan that involves a “999”, the police code for officer down, across town. With every officer is away, they’ll have plenty of time to pull of the final heist.
Meanwhile, Marcus is paired with the rookie Chris (Casey Affleck) who not only gives of Boy Scout vibes but he’s also the nephew of Sergeant Allen (Woody Harrelson). Chris is not the guy Marcus and the crew need asking questions while they’re neck deep in dirty-cop business.
The crew sets up for their last job and plan to use Chris as the guy to take the bullet for their 999.
There are parts of Triple 9 that make sense and, although not original, are executed very well. The opening robbery scene beautifully shot. The dye pack sequence looks great, especially when the crew partially covered in red paint emerge form a minivan and have to shoot their way out of a traffic jam on the freeway. Later on, the shootout leading up the 999 is the most intense sequence in the film. It has everything you want from heavily armed thugs shooting it out, to a crack house maze.
Unfortunately, a lot of Triple 9 doesn’t make sense. Maybe “doesn’t make sense” is a too strong of a term. There’s a lot in the film that’s never explained. It’s the kind of ambiguity that works in some films, but leaves entirely too many questions in others – Triple 9 is the latter. Some information would be important like Why is the group in debt with Irina (Kate Winslet) and her Russian gang? What were they stealing? Why is Sergeant Allen doing drugs in front of people? How much did Gal Gadot get paid for 45 seconds of screen time? Why is every character in this film so bad at their jobs?
The movie does however hand out some valuable life lessons. 1) Never have a drug addict in your robbery crew. They can’t be trusted. 2) Joint custody will be extremely difficult if your ex is part of a Russian mob family. 3) Being a successful robbery crew doesn’t mean you’re rich. 4) The “last job” usually means people are going to die.
Triple 9 started as a formulaic, but interesting, bad cops as robbers story. The wheels quickly fall off during the third act. There are way too many coincidences happening in the span of 15 minutes. The storyline drags on for an additional 20 minutes and it shoehorns in a “villain”. Do you know what an overloaded story doesn’t need? More story. If someone is drowning, you don’t pour water in their mouth. Well, that’s exactly what happened. There’s 20 more minutes of cat-and-mouse with a character nobody cares about this is what really sinks the movie. Instead of letting the movie just be what it is, there’s more story added to tie up loose ends that aren’t really important. And it’s not just that it’s 20 minutes; it’s those minutes being filled with every suspense thriller cliche they could think of.
Bank robbery movies with an ensemble cast will always be compared to Heat. What made Heat work wasn’t just the cast, it was a story people cared about with characters people liked. Triple 9 is a convoluted story with disposable characters, and more “whys” than “wows”. There’s too much going on to even attempt to tell a coherent story. As talented as John Hillcoat is, even he couldn’t save Triple 9 from being another mediocre Heat rip-off.