When it comes to reliability in the world of cinema, the genre of crime film is one that consistently produces mostly-decent films drawing from the same grab bag of twists & turns time and time again. Now, this is not a bad thing-movies like these usually allow their cast to stretch some serious acting muscle throughout the course of the film's run time while inhabiting a gritty universe unchanged from the last time we saw a film about corrupt cops/gang of criminals/major heists/people looking sullen. In fact, since the dawn of the millennium we've been treated to true standouts not just with regards to the genre itself but when it comes to film as a whole-2010's The Town, 2006's The Departed and 2001's Training Day have all served to tell compelling stories rich with highly developed characters played against very similar backdrops.
Triple 9 is like a patchwork quilt of the aforementioned titles, extracting their best moments and, much like this year's Eddie the Eagle, serving it back to us in a form loaded with talent but with an all-too familiar sensation of playing it safe. From the moment the first character speaks, we know exactly where this is heading, and as the story unfolds we're again treated to scenes that, much like what Gus Van Sant did with his 1998 shot-for-shot remake of Psycho, can't help but make one wonder if we're simply witnessing pages from, say, director John Hillcoat’s (The Road, Lawless) dog-eared copy of the Training Day shooting script, redone with Casey Affleck and Anthony Mackie inhabiting the main roles.
Speaking of that, Affleck and Mackie are but two of the supremely talented star-studded cast, one that also features Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave, The Martian), Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad), Norman Reedus (The Walking Dead) and even Woody Harrelson inhabiting his now-classic character of Weathered Alcoholic Detective that fits him like a well-worn glove. His character is essentially is the living embodiment of Triple 9‘s tendency to liberally borrow from the past with the way he wears his ancient suit, undoes his tie and grips a flask as if it were another residual pay check from his work in The Hunger Games. Kate Winslet appears from time to time adopting a passable Russian accent, and Clifton Collins, Jr., one of my favorite character actors, finally gets another major role that probably wouldn't have worked as well had he not grown his creepy mustache. Believe me.
All these actors ease into their parts like they were specifically written for each of them, which helps to elevate the story from a mere pastiche of shaky-cam noir to something quite a bit better. Yes, everything you would expect to happen does happen-the opening scene with the elaborate bank robbery, the reveal that certain characters aren't who they seem, the new cop trying to adjust to the reality of life on the streets, the connections to the Russian Mafia...Triple 9 clearly just got done with a shopping trip to the grocery store of crime film where it made off with all the good stuff. It's as reliable as films get, right down to the cinéma vérité-style shaky camera that puts you right in the action, just as anticipated. There's some shocking violence, some genuine tension, and a slew of actors flawlessly performing in a rare instance of creating true disbelief that who we're seeing onscreen isn’t Hollywood's A-List, but the characters themselves. I remain convinced that Aaron Paul and Anthony Mackie are destined for true greatness, with Clifton Collins, Jr. also serving as a nice surprise. And Woody Harrelson...there's nothing wrong with that man. I mean, who didn’t also love Money Train?
It’s likely that Triple 9 won’t leave a lasting impression on its audience, but it's a nice way to kill two hours and a great excuse to bring together a wonderful group of actors as they wait for their next high-profile blockbuster to enter production. The formula that created Triple 9 may not consist of anything new, but by leaving it unchanged, Hillcoat has given us a film that's instantly a welcome addition to its timeless genre.