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Movie Review: 'Triple 9'

The dark and of ugly world of Triple 9 tells us more than we probably want to know.

Review by Matt Cummings

For a person who finds himself loyal to our country's police forces, Triple 9 sends a scary and unfortunate truth: those who protect us sometimes get swept up in the world they try to protect us from. I just wish the hard action and duplicitous nature of its excellent leads would have amounted to something in the end.

The city of Atlanta is not only filled with a bevy of undesirable gangs but a team of cops that are as corrupt as the people they hunt. At its center is a crack team led by Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his partners Belmont (Anthony Mackie), Welch (Aaron Paul), his Special-Ops brother Russell (Norman Reedus), and the detective Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr.). Scoring heists in an attempt to free Atwood's son from the clutches of the Russian-Jew gangster Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet), the team are faced with a final, nearly impossible challenge: raid a Homeland Security transfer station while keeping the police far away. They realize the best way to make such a plan work is to kill a fellow cop (Casey Affleck), whose Johnny-Be-Good nature instantly rubs his new partner Belmont the wrong way. Their execution of Chris will set off the famous '999' alarm, sending every cop in the region to one location while Atwood and his men carry out Vlaslov's never-ending demands. The result will see loyalties tested and a bloodbath that begins and ends with one man's love for his son.

For all the mayhem it pursues - deftly crafted by Lawless' John Hillcoat - Triple 9 makes you want to dislike and mistrust the police in a way that feels very unhealthy. Hillcoat and Writer Matt Cook weave a plot designed to gray out any love for its considerable cast; but I suspect that's the point. By the time you get to the excellent ending, you'll be happy that so many find their ends by purely violent means. That's not a spoiler at all, rather a message by our creative team: mess with the system, and it eventually processes you out in said violent manner.

And yet, Triple 9 will wear on you. For nearly two hours, we see what seems to be an entire city of crooked cops and ex-military men centered on making the world right for themselves, with the gangs actually looking like victims for once. Things get started early with a 10-minute opening that must have clogged Atlanta's streets for days, and that's the prettiest things ever get. And all of this happens without a lot of exposition as to why, which becomes a real problem in the turgid third act. A late-minute assassination here, a blown up vehicle there, and the whole thing feels Cook and Hillcoat got on a rollercoaster ready to perform the science of it but eventually say "fuck it" as they scream their heads off in the loop-dee-loop. Perhaps anything deeper would have True Detective-d this, but one might find themselves yearning for a little explanation.

But you ain't getting one, as Triple 9 assaults us with perhaps the best cast of 2016 so far, hoping we'll enjoy their absolute command of the screen. Ejiofor, Affleck, Collins, and Mackie make a pretty unbeatable team, with Ejiofor showing his range from do-gooder in The Martian to his best boil-burn-desperation here. He's clearly a man on the edge, unable to see his son as Vlaslov turns down the clamps on Atwood's team. But when his revenge moment arrives - and you knew it would come - we're actually happy for him, until we realize that he's just as much scum as the rest of them. That moment plays really well, and you'll hate yourself for at once appreciating his skill but hating him just the same. Collins and Mackie get dark as well, with Collins' cut-throat sensibilities coming off as almost barbarian. Mackie is so consistently good in every role he's in that it's sometimes hard to give him that credit because his best is always on display.

In Triple 9 you get a wide selection of performances, most of which come off perfectly tuned. There's over-the-top bitch in Winslet, understated but absolutely badass in Affleck, way-past-the-line freak in Paul, and even way-past-transgender in a cameo by Michael K. Williams of all people. And then there's the perpetually drunk/stoned/whack job Woody Harrelson as Chris' uncle, whose performance makes you wish we didn't have cops. Perhaps the one that feels out of place is Gal Gadot's Elena, who's never around enough for us to get to know. In the end, she's just pretty Russian trash whose gangster mother won't give her and Atwood the time to build their family. But it's Winslet's transformative performance that's so incredible - I literally didn't know who she was until the credits started rolling. She gives Atwood everything he can handle and more, with a grace and style (hot red leather boots and all) of a queen bee. Her demands eventually run this team into the ground, and it's almost sickening how much I enjoyed it. That's the power one well-built character can have on a story.

It's entirely possible that you could emerge from Triple 9 wondering what the hell you just watched but loving every minute of it. On the other end, you could feel completely detached by a script that doesn't care about the reasons for its graying loyalties and motives. That's both the beauty and frustration behind this intriguing picture.

But one thing is clear: Triple 9 exists to share an uncomfortable truth, that while many police officers protect our streets, we always remember the dirty ones. Given all the madness that's happened recently in towns across America with those in law enforcement, Hilcoat might be telling us something we probably already know. Whether that works or not here is for you to decide.

Triple 9 is rated R for strong violence and language throughout, drug use and some nudity and has a runtime of 115 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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