Friday, February 26, 2016

In Theaters: TRIPLE 9 (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by John Hillcoat. Written by Matt Cook. Cast: Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Kate Winslet, Woody Harrelson, Aaron Paul, Clifton Collins Jr., Norman Reedus, Teresa Palmer, Michael K. Williams, Gal Gadot, Michelle Ang, Terence Rosemore, Luis Da Silva Jr, E. Roger Mitchell, Igor Komar. (R, 114 mins)

Though it openly worships at the altar of Michael Mann classics like 1981's THIEF and 1995's HEAT, along with other dirty cop movies like 2001's TRAINING DAY, 2002's DARK BLUE, and 2008's STREET KINGS, TRIPLE 9 earns its place as one of the better offerings in a genre that's usually relegated to VOD and DTV these days. Debuting screenwriter Matt Cook's script is reminiscent of vintage David Ayer, who wrote TRAINING DAY, DARK BLUE, and END OF WATCH, and directed STREET KINGS before the fuckin' motherfucker fuckin' became a fuckin' ridiculous fuckin' one-note fuckin' self-fuckin'-parody of him-fuckin'-self, but with an unusual cast, crackling direction by Australian John Hillcoat (THE PROPOSITION, THE ROAD, LAWLESS), and an endlessly driving, throbbing, synthy John Carpenter-style score by Trent Reznor collaborator Atticus Ross, TRIPLE 9 overcomes its familiarities and occasional contrivances to emerge a gritty, fast-paced, and intense cop thriller.

The film opens with a highly-coordinated, HEAT-derived robbery of one safety-deposit box at a downtown Atlanta bank. The getaway goes to shit when some out-in-the-open money stashed away by one of them has a dye-pack explode in the speeding SUV. The idiot who improvised is crew's requisite hapless fuck-up Gabe (Aaron Paul), brought into the fold by his older brother Russell (Norman Reedus, cast radically against type as "Norman Reedus"). The ringleader is Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a former black-ops mercenary who did some work in the Middle East with Russell. Also in the group are two dirty cops, the gang unit's Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie) and homicide's Franco Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr). They're all in the employ of ruthless Russian-Jewish mob boss Irina Vlaslov (Oscar-winner and seven-time nominee Kate Winslet, relishing a chance to ham it up with a hairsprayed '80s helmet of a mob wife hairdo), who assumed control of her organization when her powerful and feared husband Vassili (Igor Komar) was thrown into a Russian gulag under the orders of Vladimir Putin himself. Complicating matters is Michael fathering a child with Irina's younger, dim-witted, endlessly-clubbing sister Elena (Gal Gadot), which keeps him a tight leash with Irina and her ruthless, yarmulke-sporting enforcers. Needing some homeland security files as part of a secret deal with the FBI that will get Vassili moved to Israel, Irina sends Elena off to Tel Aviv with Michael's son and refuses to pay him and his crew for their work until they pull off this One Last Job--getting what she needs from a locked-down government building--a job that's so impossible that the only way Belmont and Rodriguez can see getting it done is by calling a 9-9-9 over the radio--a "Triple 9" meaning "officer down"--which will effectively distract every available cop in Atlanta by sending them ot the scene of the cop killing, buying them some much-needed extra time. And Belmont has the perfect victim in his new partner Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), a loner cop from a cushier suburban post--and the nephew of the grizzled, alcoholic, pot-smoking lead investigator (Woody Harrelson) on the opening heist--who immediately clashes with Belmont and the other cops in the gang unit.

Carrying a large ensemble and enough plot for an entire third season of TRUE DETECTIVE, TRIPLE 9 trucks along at such a relentless clip that you don't have time to question the little problems that come up (how Gabe ends up at that particular place at that time, for instance). There's little here you haven't seen before, but its nihilistic tone puts it squarely in Hillcoat's wheelhouse, and even the predictable things that take place end up happening in unpredictable ways, be it at a different time than you expect or to a different person than you anticipate. Hillcoat stages several nail-biting sequences--the opening robbery, Belmont arriving at work late the morning of the first robbery and failing to notice a small spatter of red dye on his pants, a raid on a gang compound in the projects, a chase down the traffic-jammed downtown Atlanta freeway (there's some aerial shots of downtown and a second-unit shot of the famed Stone Mountain carving, though on the whole, he doesn't make great use of Atlanta locations like, say, SHARKY'S MACHINE). The cast is committed across the board (Ejiofor and Affleck are excellent), with Winslet not necessarily succeeding as a fearsome antagonist, but seeing her in such a bizarre role so far outside her comfort zone makes her performance fascinating. She enthusiastically sinks her teeth into her Boris & Natasha accent and is almost freakish at times, so much so that Michael K. Williams' (BOARDWALK EMPIRE's Chalky White) brief appearance as a cross-dressing male prostitute and Harrelson playing a scene in a wolf's mask are the second and third strangest sights on display. Harrelson seems to be existing in a different film altogether throughout, though not in a bad way. He's approaching it from a different angle than his co-stars and seems to have been given some wide latitude to Woody it up a bit, with his character such a train wreck--showing up to work drunk and high, sifting through trash bags at crime scenes to find the tiniest remnants of a spliff to openly blaze up in front of the other cops he's supervising--that it seems impossible that he'd still have a job. TRIPLE 9 doesn't exactly forge a new path in the annals of cop vs. criminal movies, but it's riveting entertainment, the kind of film that's going to be in heavy cable rotation for the next several decades, and you'll end up watching it every time you stumble upon it.

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