Director: John Hillcoat
Cast: Casey Affleck, Kate Winslet, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus and Woody Harrelson
Running Time: 115 minutes
Release Date: February 19th
Overused, because of its sobering profundity, “So it goes” is Kurt Vonnegut’s unsettlingly honest assessment of death, and its transient impact on the world. Deployed as a mantra in Slaughterhouse Five, it is a concise comment of true originality by way of its sheer simplicity, and obviousness. Having served to inspire countless writers who have read the book since its publication in 1969, it is interesting to see how director John Hillcoat almost uses it as an unspoken line, both revered and challenged in his grandiose heist-gone-wrong film, Triple 9.
You see, the way one reacts to death varies depending on the profession that they have chosen for themselves. In the cinematic criminal underworld, if a person is murdered, then “so it goes” is essentially the final word in their epitaph, whether stated aloud, or not. The associates of the deceased cannot dwell too long on his or her death, because self-preservation is priority. The authorities will likely feel the same way.
However, if a police officer is killed, whether on, or off duty, while the netherworld will hardly shed a tear, every cop will react with murder in their eyes. “So it goes” does not apply here. The American response is “Triple Nine”. This means every on-duty officer mobilizes to hence track the Cop Killer and get revenge. To borrow a quote from Only God Forgives, a polarizing work, which draws many parallels with this film, in terms of its visual composition, “you can’t go round killing cops anymore”.
At its core, Triple 9 is about the “So it goes” mentality, and around this, a variety of treads are wrapped, some tight, others a tad messy, and in certain instances, frustratingly absent. Though patchy, however, it cannot be said that this film is anything short of being grippingly high-octane for at least three-quarters of the duration.
Blending the visual style, and ideas behind Reservoir Dogs, the later works of Nicolas Winding Refn, and Spike Lee’s Inside Man, the film tells of a group of former-Navy Seals, and corrupt police officers who stage a bank robbery for a wealthy Russian Jewish family. Launched with a pure AMC cold opening of cool, but vague dialogue, cigarettes, and cusses, it should only please audiences more, when they learn that Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul, and The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus play siblings, next to Chiwetel Ejiofor, best known for his lead role in 12 Years a Slave. Their planned heist is simple: Daylight robbery, three minutes and a van out back, pretty standard.
And indeed, the theft is executed perfectly at the bank stage. However, upon making their getaway, the stolen goods, they learn have been equipped with a security tag, which throws the escape into chaos atop a freeway. Attempting to evade arrest, the crew unleash hell with their arsenal of automatic weapons, in one of the film’s most shocking, but incredible scenes.
Managing to escape, the team’s success is rendered problematic when they learn the item they have stolen is only half of what the Russians require. This family, headed by Kate Winslet doing her best Kirsten Scott Thomas impression, run the criminal underworld on a Rian Johnson level of cruelty, and it becomes clear, in the David Fincher-esque opening that you comply with their every demand. Imagine drugging, gagging and binding three young fools in a car booth, who learn, when they wake that all of their teeth have been removed, and you have a good impression of how dangerous this clan are when only toying with their prey.
What they demand is pretty straightforward: steal a series of files from Homeland Security. How hard could it be? Well, easy when you have no other choice and Winslet has more leverage than you could imagine. Being the sister-in-law to Ejiofor’s character Michael, and the aunt of his child, she also has the advantage of being able to order his men to death, should they not submit. To prove a point, she does this, making the second act a tortuous psychological affair, as the men realize killing an officer, and triggering a Triple Nine is the only way of insuring they can exit Homeland alive.
In the meantime, and on their trail is Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), a moral officer, whose only downfall is the fact that his partner, Marcus (Anthony Mackie) is part of Michael’s team. Assisted by his uncle, Detective Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson), a man whose outlook on life suggests he will vote Trump, the pair struggles to investigate a gruesome set of beheadings done by a cartel, which, through a series of coincidences lead to Michael’s team deciding that Chris is their target.
As the two plots collide, and merge, accelerating to a vicious climax, one major issue that hinders the thriller is Hillcoat’s ambition. This is a huge story, and it would appear that certain elements were cut from the final edit. As the third act kicks off, the audience may feel overwhelmed as if they had missed out on very particular aspects of the plot, but it seems these areas are absent altogether. From the Russian criminal arc, to the nervous breakdown of one particular character, there are strands of story which are undercooked enough, that you might need to send the bloody dish back into the kitchen.
Considering the fact that many of the cast members have performed in some of the finest television series’ of the past five years, you cannot help but wonder why Triple 9 did not get made into a mini-series at the very least for the small screen? In terms of scale, it fits the cinematic medium, but this lets down the story in a few areas. Hillcoat and his cast run out of steam by the extended coda, which seems to have been tacked on to fill time, and time, which could at the least, have been used elsewhere. This is not to call the film poor, but rather, a tad dissatisfying towards its final moments. Sometimes the magic cannot be created twice, and this unfortunately proves to be the case here, when the sheer brilliance of heist number one almost sets the bar too high for the second to even contemplate clearing.