There’s something to be said about sweaty movie characters. Working in Atlanta, Georgia, where it’s hot and humid, the shiny foreheads of TRIPLE 9 certainly add verisimilitude. And it relieves the makeup department from having to powder Woody Harrelson’s dome after every take. Yet, at some point, I wanted to reach through the screen and pass everyone a handkerchief. That grimy sweat that clings to the characters extends to Triple 9 as a whole. The plot, the locations, the dialogue – it’s all so seedy, gritty, and dirty that it becomes difficult to enjoy anything. There are strong visceral thrills, particularly when the characters squirm in delightfully inescapable situations, that make the movie worth watching. It’s just unfortunate that not one of them is likable enough to care about, and the filthiness of the world is a terribly uninviting place to spend two hours.
The film opens with the first thrilling sequences, a bank heist. A group of masked men grabs some cash and a safe deposit box in perfect synchronicity. And then things start to go wrong in a wonderful, can’t-look-away fashion. Once the masks come off, we discover most of the criminals are detectives, and are back to their day jobs (apparently one of the perks of being a detective is setting your own hours). If Triple 9 had continued down this road, we could very well have been looking at a new classic in the genre. Instead, things start to go off the rails. One of the unmasked criminals, Michael Atwood (Chiwetal Ejiofor), takes the haul from the bank to a Russian-Israeli mafia boss, Irina Vlaslov (an accented Kate Winslet). Irina is constantly surrounded by angry Jewish henchmen, who look more ridiculous than menacing. Here we get some complicated plot requiring Michael to obtain files from a highly guarded Homeland Security building in order to get some other Russian guy in prison released. If Michael completes this mission, he’ll get to see his son for more than an hour every weekend. Irina has control of Michael’s son because the mother is Irina’s sister, Elena (a barely present Gal Gadot). If you’re thinking that this is starting to sound a bit convoluted, you’re right.
Add on half a dozen additional characters–each with their own motivations–and a plot involving one of the corrupt detectives (Anthony Mackie) agreeing to shoot his partner in order to divert police attention, and you’ve got yourself one heck of an overstuffed film. While all the characters are properly motivated, save for one who seems to be evil incarnate, there are none we’re particularly rooting for. Casey Affleck’s character gets the most sympathy, but that’s simply by virtue of being the only character who isn’t pulling off heists and shooting at random civilians. We spend time with him, but don’t really know much about him besides seeing his wife and kid as shorthand for: this is somebody who’s a good guy and we shouldn’t want anything bad to happen to him. Ejiofor’s character has a kid, sure, but he also manages to make himself incredibly unlikable in his complete lack of concern for other humans. There are redemptions, but they come in small doses. At best, this movie is about spending two hours with a group of sweaty guys willing to hurt all kinds of other people with little remorse.
Which is unfortunate, because the movie excels in its gripping, tension-filled scenes. Whether it’s the impeccably staged heist and getaway that opens the film, or the pursuit through the labyrinth of an abandoned housing project near the climax, Triple 9 delivers on these suspenseful action sequences. Even smaller scenes–such as the one in which a gang leader is apprehended–are loaded with tension. Triple 9 may not give us characters with whom we can connect, but it does manage to inject each scene with taut thrills.
Fans of gritty crime thrillers will enjoy Triple 9. The film takes the darkest aspects of the sub-genre and pushes them further into the shadows. The characters are not the most welcoming bunch, but the story delivers thrills–greasy, grimy thrills–in spades.
I give Triple 9 3 sweaty foreheads out of 5
Score: 3 out of 5
Wil Loper | Contributor