Triple 9 is a strange beast indeed. At once it’s too dense, packed with almost a dozen main characters, each vying to suck some of the oxygen out of the reasonably complex narrative. On the other hand it’s a reasonably simple morality play, with many quirks of character and story archetypical and predictable. Running just under two hours the film feels paradoxically too long and too short – twenty minutes less and we might have a truly taut thriller, add on 10 hours and you’ve got the makings of a wonderful HBO saga.
Yet I think for all its faults it may be easy to overlook the very many things that the film gets right. Firstly, the casting is impressive to say the least, consisting of some of the finest players of our time. Take Kate Winslet’s crime box Irina, as scene chewingly terrific as anything she’s done of late. Fellow Oscar fav Chiwetel Ejiofor brings forth his unique gravitas, as does Casey Affleck who I predict will be a strong contender next season for Manchester By The Sea. Anthony Mackie struts his stuff without the baggage of his Super Hero antics, and while Aaron Paul isn’t exactly working against type he manages to find more humanity from a strung-out hapless dude than many others could.
There are a few surprising walk-ons, from Gal Gadot playing a statuesque mafia sister (the term “La Kosher Nostra”, by the way, is Nobel worthy), and when Michael K. Williams shows up looking positively resplendent you know you’re in for a treat. There’s that Norman Reedus guy from some TV show, and Clifton Collins from Soderbergh’s Traffic, a film that seems to have a modicum of stylistic conformity with what’s taking place here. Finally there’s Woody Harrelson, bringing the True Detective matching luggage to his wild and rampant character. It’s a weird one, and Woody’s relishing it down to the last puff.
With such a constellation of characters there’s plenty to root for, and for the first hour or so the film is a sheer delight. You’ve got elements drawn from classic heist films, from Dog Day Afternoon to Heat, shot reasonably well under the direction of John Hillcoat. It’s very much to Hillcoat’s credit that things remain coherent throughout as there’s a lot of heavy lifting in terms of story, keeping all these balls in the air while juggling different storylines, characters, motivations and double-crossings.
For some the payoff really won’t, well, pay off, yet I have to applaud the film’s intent to provide audiences with something intelligent, stylish and entertaining, all without pandering via super simplistic storylines. Again, we’ve not reached something nearly as operatic as The Wire, yet the film at its best does manage to feel novelistic, with rich back stories often alluded to rather than dwelled upon.
In fact it’s when things really do start coming together that the film feels less special. You know the reckonings are coming, but for a film that does such an elegant job at building things up the crashing down comes without as much stylishness (I guess when Marty’s already done denouement via the perfect montage to the piano outro of “Layla” there’s a disincentive to even try).
I can be mildly annoyed that the film came close without fully succeeding, or be happy that Triple 9 comes 99.9 percent close to being kind of magnificent. Sure, it flops around in a kind of ungamely fashion for the last act, but boy does it look like they were trying hard to give audiences something both nostalgic and breathtakingly new. This very much feels like a film on the verge of being a masterpiece, and its faults are more missteps than complete abortive failures. Going in with a charitable sense, then, it’s easy to recommend the film as a slick, impactful film doled out in the doldrums of mid-winter, a shining nugget of interesting cinema slipping between the latest tentpole comic book movies and children’s dreck. It’s adult, it’s edgy, it’s kind of bad-ass at times, with a cast fit for kings and queens. It’s an A-list crew in an unapologetically B-film neo-noir. Triple 9 is a film of contradictions, and both despite and because of them I kind of like it a lot.
Read our interview with Anthony Mackie here.