Triple 9 is the kind of terrible movie that can only be made by a bunch of really talented people. Its sting is not merely because it’s bad, but because everyone involved is so sure that it’s going to be great. Sequence after sequence is carried out with the absolute confidence of an experienced filmmaking team. And yet the film sits there on the screen, in turns painfully simple and impossibly convoluted, clinging to lazy tropes and uncomfortable stereotypes while the formidable cast is left to try and mine any form of meaning. There’s nothing more gut-churning than watching sterling talent flail on screen attempting to work their way around material they thought would work but doesn’t.
Not that the film doesn’t try to conjure more gut-churning stuff. Directed by John Hillcoat, he who gave us the unremittent brutality of The Proposition and the dire depression of The Road, Triple 9 is so full of over-the-top blood splattering it could almost qualify for presentation at the Grand Guignol. Brutal headshots, blood-gushing wounds, and exploding feet – yes, exploding feet – are the film’s stock-in-trade, with Hillcoat brashly solidifying his status as Hollywood’s go-to guy for blunt-force nastiness. But what he fails to realize – either by oversight or just because he doesn’t care – is that violence without context exposes a filmmaker’s empty preoccupation. Brutality without substantive thematic underpinning is not powerfully affecting or even sobering and unsavory – it’s just pointlessly gross.
A lot about Triple 9 is pointlessly gross, not least of all its propensity to employ the most offensive types of clichés, oftentimes layered on top of one another so steeply it borders on parody. The story – such as it is, a loose compilation of scenes that are related to each other in action but not in any unifying theme – hinges on the notion that any minority character or person of color is a villain at worst and misguided into villainy at best, which is like one stereotype bifurcated into two. To wit, a group of tactically-trained thieves, made up of military vets and crooked cops, are blackmailed by the Russian mafia (the Russian Jewish mafia, to be clear, in another distasteful touch) into attempting a heist so complex that the only way to pull it off is to kill or wound an officer, triggering a “999,” police code for “officer down.” And voila, we have a title!
Chiwetel Ejiofor leads the team of thieves, as an ex-military man with family ties in the Russian mob. He’s aided by crooked cop partners Anthony Mackie and Clifton Collins, Jr. To be fair, there are two white guys on their team (played, thanklessly, by Aaron Paul and Norman Reedus), but both are marginalized by their status as whistleblowers with consciences. Hot on their trail are earnest, white, good guy cops played by Casey Affleck and Woody Harrelson – and they are not only good guy cops, but uncle-and-nephew good guy cops, an incidental detail the movie does nothing with, other than to reinforce its uncomfortable racial dichotomy. In Triple 9, Caucasians are noble do-gooders, or if nothing else have do-gooder souls. In contrast, people of color – or anyone not American and not male, frankly – is either consumed by evil or owned by evil. Women are either whores, or victims that end up dead in garbage cans, or both. There’s a clear attempt to depict the Ejiofor character as long-suffering and jaded, but even that is its own quasi-redemptive stereotype in a movie that has no shortage of them.
Kate Winslet is the villain, which could be a guilty pleasure saving grace in an even slightly more self-aware movie, but her character is so small that the movie frequently forgets her, which makes it more jarring when she occasionally resurfaces and is made out to be some garishly menacing presence, with her big hair and gaudy wardrobe and affected accent. The movie wants us to hate her, but the screenplay (by first-time feature scribe Matt Cook) doesn’t allow her any room to be ominously complex or even satisfyingly bitchy on a surface level. And, since she’s a woman, she’s merely a stand-in for her Big Boss husband, who’s in prison.
There’s room for these details to inform her character, but “informing characters” isn’t something Triple 9 is keen on doing. None of them have clear desires or goals. The narrative isn’t driven organically from them. It isn’t driven organically from anything, actually, other than a moment-to-moment fascination with its own ever-changing scenarios, devoid of meaning and purpose, coherence as fleeting as our collective interest.