Men in ski masks barge into a bank. Bullets are fired. A vault is opened. Police sirens blare. If you’re confused about what’s happening, that’s okay. Triple 9 begins like this review — a lot of action and not much explanation. It’s a fine way to open a film, but it doesn’t grab our attention until something goes wrong. In this case, a can of red smoke explodes in the getaway car. It swerves across a jammed Atlanta freeway, generating enough suspense to keep us hooked. While it adheres to the recognizable action-film paradigm, Triple 9’s stellar cast and seamless execution makes for a memorable ride.
When the criminals make it to safety and unmask, we’re met with the face of Chiwetel Ejiofor, the Oscar-winning actor from 12 Years a Slave, here lending his undeniable talent to more mainstream fare. He’s Michael, an ex-army guy and the leader of a band of trigger-happy outsiders that includes Marcus (Anthony Mackie), Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Gabe (Aaron Paul). They’re a strong, spunky group prone to mumbling and friendly fire. Writer Matt Cook, a relative newcomer, doesn’t waste time explaining why they’re after stolen cash. It’s a wise move. A movie like Triple 9 benefits more from adrenaline than exposition. In its place, Cook offers a surprise — the bank robbers are cops.
Are dirty cops a gimmick? Sure, but criticizing Triple 9 for exhibiting traits of its genre isn’t a valid form of critique. Instead, it’s worth noting how the film resists certain tired traditions. For one, the cast is diverse. It’s great to see the screen filled with non-white actors. Additionally, there are no scenes of gratuitous female nudity, and in place of a handsome hero, we get Woody Harrelson. Sporting what might be the same badge he wore on True Detective, he’s a beer-guzzling detective with tacky ties and a prickly mustache. Making his entrance through a cloud of pot smoke, he’s the hotshot cop from the 80s who spent too much time in a patrol car to have a wife and kids. The only family he’s got is Chris (Casey Affleck), a nephew who is also the newest recruit on the Atlanta force.
The testosterone of the mostly-male cast is tempered by the arrival of Kate Winslet. Ditching her Polish accent from Steve Jobs, she gives a scene-stealing performance as Irina, the Russian mob boss in cahoots with Michael. Her sister had a baby with him and now she’s using their son as a pawn to make Michael carry out improbable heists. Her demands are as unfeasible as Michael’s willingness to go through with them, but ignore that. The fun of Triple 9 isn’t in realism; it’s in watching Winslet’s long, manicured fingers pour tea while discussing her breach of federal security.
Director John Hillcoat has put a lot of thought into Triple 9 and it shows. He cares about composition, framing his actors in such a way that always enhances the tension. Taking a cue from Michael Mann (Heat) and Cary Fukunaga (True Detective), he also knows how to choreograph a stellar drug bust. When his camera follows Affleck’s cop through a gang leader’s apartment, it feels as though we’re right behind him, yelling “clear” at each empty room we pass. Hillcoat also directed The Road (2009) and Lawless (2012), so he’s clearly got a soft spot for sensitive tough guys. With Triple 9, he’s shed some of the seriousness of those earlier films in exchange for pure, popcorn fun. It works.
Triple 9 probably won’t go down as one of the great heist films on par with Die Hard or The Italian Job, but it might. The southern setting creates a fantastic atmosphere, the car chases are exciting and the cast is phenomenal. Clifton Collins, Jr. (Capote) is perfect as the two-faced investigator with smoldering black eyes, Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) proves himself once again as the twitchy spaz with a crack habit, and above all, Harrelson is the perfect blend of buffoon and badass.
Erica Peplin (@ericapeplin) is a writer and editor for Spectrum Culture. She lives in New York.