TRIPLE 9 Mixes Throwback Grit and Genuine Suspense

by Frank Calvillo

It usually bugs me when people take a certain genre of film and then complain that in this modern day and age, there’s nowhere left to go with it. It’s a fair enough claim since most every storytelling avenue within any genre has been explored and today’s movie audiences have become incredibly savvy with regards to said plot conventions. Today we more or less walk into a movie having at least SOME idea of what to expect. What people fail to realize, however, is that the point isn’t always to break new ground in terms of story content, but rather, like with the heist thriller Triple 9, how vivaciously a filmmaker chooses to illustrate it on the screen.

Opening with a highly energetic sequence, Triple 9 focuses on a group of bank robbers (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Clifton Collins Jr., Anthony Mackie, Norman Reedus and Aaron Paul) pulling off a meticulously detailed heist for Irina (Kate Winslet), the wife an imprisoned Russian-Israeli mafia boss. Yet all is not what it seems as two of the men, Jorge (Collins) and Marcus (Mackie) are actually Detectives for the Atlanta P.D., while Michael (Ejiofor) is actually the father of Irina’s nephew, forever keeping him under her thumb. When the gang is tasked with completing one more job, it’s decided that the only way to pull it off is to create a distraction by staging a triple 9, the code for the killing of a police officer. When Marcus is assigned a new partner in the form of straight shooter Chris (Casey Affleck), it would appear their target has been found. However, pulling off the plan won’t be so easy, especially under the watchful eye of Sergeant Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson), a no-nonsense detective who also happens to be Chris’s uncle.

In one of his earliest films, Alfred Hitchcock featured a scene in which a briefcase containing a ticking time bomb was placed at the feet of two gentlemen having coffee in a cafe. The two men enjoyed their coffee as the audience, who knew what was in the briefcase, nervously sweated out the entire scene. For Hitchcock, that was the true meaning of suspense; not any big explosion, but rather the anticipation of it.

The team behind Triple 9 recognize this blueprint and wonderfully use it to full effect, letting the audience in on Marcus’s plan to sacrifice Chris so that his partners can pull off a seemingly impossible bank job. How he’s going to do it, when he’s going to do it and whether or not will Chris survive, are all thoughts which flood the audience’s minds for most of Triple 9. Where most films strive to keep such plot points hidden, this one places it front and center, letting the audience think they know what’s to come while a never ending amount of suspense takes them over. Yes, the mechanics of the plot are standard and somewhat generic, but this is a film about anticipation and the glorious agony it provokes in a moviegoer. It is the essence of suspense and the principle reason Triple 9 works.

I’ve always been a particular fan of films which are universal both in terms of motif and tone. Triple 9 fits this bill without question in its many embraceable throwback qualities which call to mind some of the best cop heist films of the past. The film’s grainy, raw look and director John Hillcoat’s forgoing of over the top action sequences for a more intimate, brutal frankness when it comes to violent moment give the story a welcomed feel of familiarity. Adding to this is the film’s minimal use of technology (by my count only two scenes featured an iPhone), relying instead on good old-fashioned gunplay to generate thrills and suspense. In short, Triple 9 is a movie that can exist in pretty much any time and place.

As is the case with any ensemble film, the performances here are a mixed bag with some of the actors naturally inhabiting their roles, while others coming off as embarrassingly miscast. On the former side, Mackie, Harrelson, Paul and Collins turn in some solid work, with Harrelson in particular going to town with his role of a detective who is always on hand with an endless supply of one-liners. Its sad to report that the rest of the cast falls short. Affleck never gets a real handle on his character, while Ejiofor loads way too much pathos into his role and Reedus isn’t on screen long enough to register. The real disappointment however is Winslet, who camps up Irina to such an extreme, that the audience ends up being more oddly fascinated by the character, rather than fearful of her.

Triple 9 is the perfect kind of late winter offering. There’s an involving, if slightly unspectacular plot to lap up, and an assortment of actors who have some worthwhile characters to play with. Most of all though, it keeps its genre of origin alive and well and reminds audiences why they fell in love with it in the first place. If Triple 9 doesn’t serve up anything fresh, it doesn’t really matter. It’s audience still manages to leave feeling satisfied.

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