There are certain types of films that are hard to get just right narratively. With a dark drama filled with morally questionable characters, for example, there has to be a reason to get the audience on board. That hook can make characters sympathetic, or so decisively evil that the audience roots for comeuppance. That hook is what’s lacking in Triple 9, an Atlanta-set crime drama that opens with some promise, but can’t be saved by compelling characters when things fall apart.
Triple 9 opens with a group of criminals – Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor), brothers Russell (Norman Reedus) and Gabe (Aaron Paul), and dirty cops Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Jorge (Clifton Collins Jr.) – robbing a bank and escaping the police. The target of their robbery is a safety deposit box, but when the box is delivered to Irina (Kate Winslet), the wife of the head of the Russian-Jewish mob, their payment is delayed until they complete a second robbery, this time at the Department of Homeland Security. Knowing there are no other ways to cover the heist with the time that they have without the police getting involved, they make a plan to call in a “999,” a.k.a. a cop shooting. Marcus even has the perfect target in mind: his uncorrupted new partner Chris (Casey Affleck), who happens to be the nephew of Detective Jeff Allen (Woody Harrelson), the lead investigator of the earlier bank heist.
There are a lot of characters and a hefty amount of plot, in other words, and that’s not including a subplot about Michael’s son with Irina’s younger sister Elena (Gal Gadot). What isn’t present is a compelling reason to watch pretty much any of these characters. Paul gets a few moments to briefly engage, and Harrelson is a breath of fresh (or…perhaps drunken) air whenever he comes into a scene, with a fluidity that makes him far more interesting than the static characters the film otherwise provides.
That lack of connection makes the questions raised seem just shy of pointless. For example, can Marcus actually go through with shooting another cop just so he can save himself? There’s nothing to suggest he won’t – Marcus and Chris don’t even seem to like each other a little bit – so when the other characters ask, it seems random. And even with the precious minutes given to Chris’ home life, there’s no real reason to support Chris surviving beyond him being a rare decent guy in this otherwise corrupt crew of characters.
It’s a problem regardless, but Triple 9 comes so close in so many ways to getting something good, which makes its failures all the more frustrating. The cast? Brilliant…elsewhere. And that includes Michael K. Williams, here in a surprising but solid cameo that unfortunately had my screening audience uncomfortably snickering. The setting? Fresh…but poorly planned (and Atlantans may have a field day with where some of the scenes are “set”). The dramatic drive? Present at the beginning, but lost by the time the film reaches its final act. Triple 9 may provide some entertainment for fans of some of the cast members who want to see them take on some different roles, but beyond that, it’s either too short or too bloated with characters to make the film work.