The dirty-cop thriller just got dirtier…
“Spend my time tryin’ to make a difference,” says rookie Atlanta cop Chris Allen (Casey Affleck) when asked by his uncle, Sergeant Detective Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson), how his job’s going. “Make a difference?” comes the snarled response. “You ain’t gonna make a fuckin’ difference. Your job? Out-monster the monster, and get home at the end of the night.”
Even reduced to such basics, it’s one hell of a task, with Chris finding himself up to his neck in a city brought to its knees by Russian mafia, corrupt cops and a succession of military-precision heists. All three are naturally linked, with the mobsters, led by terrifying (and that’s just her hair and make-up) Russian-Israeli moll Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet), strong-arming the dirty cops, bossed by Belmont (Chiwetel Ejiofor), into masterminding the takedowns.
Belmont’s team comprises Chris’ experienced partner Marcus Atwood (Anthony Mackie), the taciturn Russel Welch (Norman Reedus) and Russel’s jittery younger brother, ex-cop Gabe (Aaron Paul). Used to responding to violent criminal enterprises, they of course know how best to liberate one very special security box from a bank’s impregnable vault, and even how to conduct the kamikaze heist they’re forcibly assigned in the third act.
Just what the target of that heist is or the truly shocking manner in which they set about it shall here remain a mystery – as will the translation of the movie’s cop-code title, which, if unfamiliar to you, should remain so until it plays its part in this seedy, sweaty drama.
That Triple 9 is even half as good as it is – or, indeed, made it to our screens at all – is a minor miracle given its messy production history. Sprung from the 2010 Black List by Australian director John Hillcoat (The Proposition, The Road) in May 2012, its casting turned into a revolving door: Shia LaBeouf became Charlie Hunnam became Affleck as Chris Allen; Cate Blanchett became Winslet as Irina Vlaslov; Michael B. Jordan became Mackie as Marcus Atwood; and Christoph Waltz became Harrelson as Jeffrey Allen.
Even Hillcoat’s favoured composer, Nick Cave, gave way to experimental noise-mongers Atticus Ross and Bobby Krlic, the former responsible for the demented score of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (with Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor), the latter known for his ambient drone metal.
Such chaos behind the camera matches the world portrayed in front of it. might juggle such familiar elements as cops and robbers, car chases, house raids, street gangs and running gun battles, but it attains a good degree of freshness from its unremitting squalor. So while corrupt-cop movies have been 10 a penny since the ’70s, few have managed to be this repellent, where a row of decapitated heads on the hood of a car or a baby in a roomful of pointed guns hardly merit a second glance.
And despite one superbly orchestrated scene that trades on mobility and cacophony as men with semi-automatic weapons move through traffic against a backdrop of towering skyscrapers, this is the anti-Heat: no sheen, no shimmer, no obsessing over highly grandiose themes and precise compositions; just grime and desperation.
Our avatar into this hell on earth is Chris, and it is his refusal to accept that he is incapable of making a difference, or at least a dent, that prevents Triple 9 from drowning us in shit, blood and nihilism. What LaBeouf, who teamed with Hillcoat on Lawless, or Hunnam, so good in Sons Of Anarchy and so average in movies, might have done with the role we’ll never know, but Affleck brings just the right mix of world-weariness and optimism.
He is, arguably, the standout in a uniformly strong ensemble, though there should be shout-outs too for a pumped-up, almost unrecognisable Ejiofor, and for a scarily icy Winslet – after last year’s Steve Jobs and The Dressmaker, it’s another look, another accent, another triumph.
One thing of side interest: Triple 9 boasts an unusually high quota of comic-book heroes in Reedus (Darryl in The Walking Dead and The Punisher in Iron Man: Rise Of Technovore), Anthony Mackie (Falcon in numerous Marvel movies), Ejiofor (Karl Mordo in the upcoming Doctor Strange) and, playing Irina Vlaslov’s younger sister, Gal Gadot (soon to debut as Wonder Woman in Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice).
Even in this age of knottily complex superhero movies, you have to wonder what those larger-than-life alter egos would make of the mundane atrocities in Triple 9, and if they’d dare hope to alleviate the darkness?