Australian director John Hillcoat has earned a reputation for making gritty but glorious dramas, from the Nick Cave-penned Western “The Proposition” to the post-apocalyptic Cormac McCarthy adaptation of “The Road” to the bootlegger drama “Lawless.” Each of these told tales of men who may do wrong but are nonetheless mesmerizing, demanding audience allegiance even as they horrify us. To this traumatic tradition, he adds “Triple 9,” an original heist thriller that will pull you to the edge of your seat and leave you breathless.
Written by newcomer Matt Cook, “Triple 9” is an intense ensemble drama that explores a tangled web of Russian gangsters, mastermind crooks, crooked cops and a brooding hero police officer. The film begins with a bank heist executed by a five-man crew made up of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Norman Reedus, Aaron Paul and Clifton Collins Jr. Merciless as they are efficient, they taze security, threaten the home and family of the bank manager, and then snatch a security box in less than three minutes, dashing off with Atlanta police in hot but hopeless pursuit. However, this riveting bank job is just an appetizer for a bigger scheme that will demand more time, and by extension a major distraction: the titular Triple 9, cop code for “officer down.”
In deep with Russian mobsters (ruled with an iron fist by Kate Winslet), Ejiorfor and his crew are forced to consider how to kill a cop to pull off this “one last job.” Having dirty cops in their fold puts them in a prime position for such a grave task, and they find a tempting target in a new-to-town officer (Casey Affleck) who happens to be the beloved nephew of the pot-smoking but powerful detective sergeant (Woody Harrelson in “True Detective” mode). But this is next-level brutality, even for them. As the big day approaches, the stress of this impending homicide fractures their bonds and sanity, building to an explosive climax that’s gruesome, yet grimly satisfying.
Hillcoat has long been a master of brooding mood and taut tension, both of which make “Triple 9” a thrilling and disturbing ride. Close-ups of screeching metal and snapped-off mirrors sell close calls of spectacular chase scenes, while a killer sound design lands every cruel collision and hard turn. Rejecting the all-too-standard scene in which a heist’s plan is laid out in full, “Triple 9” instead hurls us into these suspenseful sequences with no knowledge of where the criminals might go, or who the causalities might be. It’s a move that keeps the audience off-balance. Then there’s shootout after shootout, with SWAT teams swerving through the labyrinth-like den of a known hitman, or a lone man slinking through a dilapidated squat, slick with squalor and dark corners where a could-be cop-killer might lurk. It makes for a movie that’s deeply unnerving, in the very best way.
However, Hillcoat’s suspense-building skills could have been all for naught, if not for a cast that grounds these complicated characters and makes them worthy of our empathy. The filmmaker brought together one hell of a cast, which also includes Gal Gadot, Terese Palmer, and Michael Kenneth Williams in a movie makeover so against type he’s unrecognizable. The cast’s collective chemistry crackles.
Sporting a gnarly scalp scar, Ejiofor brings a mesmerizing blend of vulnerability and menace. With a no-nonsense demeanor, scathing insults and a fashion sense “Mob Wives” would approve of, Winslet is a deliciously devious diva of the underworld. Reedus, Paul and Clifton relish in their dirtbag roles, while Mackie radiates with a dangerous volatility. Noosed in a loose American flag tie and savoring a Southern drawl, Harrelson is cozy and sometimes darkly comic as a smug detective. Glowing with disquieting determination, Affleck is perfectly cast as the cop with a chip on his shoulder, living in the role so completely you might think Hillcoat plucked him from a real station.
Simply put, “Triple 9” is an exhilarating thriller with a brutal bite, reminiscent of “End of Watch” or “The Town.” Having said all that, this chilling drama flush with corrupt cops and gut-churning violence comes at precarious time: The film doesn’t directly touch upon the hot-button topic of police violence and Black Lives Matter, but considering its larger themes focus on abuse of power (within the ranks of cops and criminals), it’s difficult to watch “Triple 9” on a purely escapist level.
“Triple 9” opens Friday nationwide.