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Saturday, February 27, 2016

Review: TRIPLE 9 Aims For Too Many Targets

Consider this equation: for one of the first potentially big films of 2016, we start with a great if underrated director in John Hillcoat, whose The Proposition, The Road, and Lawless are all subtly intense films with a strong sense of quiet beauty on top of a lurking violence. Set this sprawling crime-drama in an underused city, Atlanta, and fill it up with a legendarily recognizable cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Casey Affleck, Kate Winslet, Aaron Paul, Anthony Mackie, Woody Harrelson, and Norman Reedus all play large roles. Atticus Ross, half of the composing team that have scored the last three David Fincher films, is added in (along with three other composers) as the last sprinkles on top. What could go wrong?

On the casting side the movie is more hits than misses. Anthony Mackie is perhaps the highlight, who brings a lot of emotional depth to a conflicted character despite what it is lacking in the script. Ejiofor is mostly the same, although his character is largely one-note in its family driven anger.  Aaron Paul and Woody Harrelson are mostly running on auto-pilot, with the former diving right back into mopey Breaking Bad territory and the latter playing the smarmy drunk cop that feels like familiar territory for Harrelson. Winslet, unfortunately is downright wasted as the Russian mafia wife antagonist, whose over the top make up, costuming, and accent seem to be all that make up the character. Overall, it's an interesting cast–although annoyingly male-centric–and there are times when it is quite fun to watch these guys butting heads.

For a project with such a massively talented cast, it's a bit surprising to see that it is scripted by newcomer Matt Cook, who has only scripted one short film prior to Triple 9. This is where the problems largely stem from. There are elements of a family cop drama, a Russian mafia tale, a one-last-heist adventure, and a The Departed corrupt cop story, all of which might have made a great movie on their own, but together feel like a movie that can't decide what it wants to be or even who its main protagonist is. The huge ensemble cast actually ends up working against it; I found myself dying to know more about each of the primary characters, looking for more than a one line background story and motivation. Why have these cops decided to use their skills to become bank robbers? Why does this new cop in town care about making a difference when his major crimes detective uncle is such a drunken cop cliche? These kinds of questions are never answered, as any time we got close to a character, the action had to cut away to one of the other neglected characters.

Now that's not to say that there aren't some really enjoyable parts, even if they don't add up to a really satisfying whole. There are a few really well crafted set pieces, including the colorfully intense bank heist that opens the film and introduces us to the general premise and most of the main characters. The action scenes are littered with realistic details that lend it a sense of real suspense not unlike last Fall's Sicario

A big part of the intensity involved in these set pieces is the impressive, but subtle cinematography by Nicolas Karakatsanis. It keeps a very intimate perspective at all times and rarely gives us a view outside of the character we're currently following, ratcheting up the tension. There's also a nice use of color that is all too often missing in these types of gritty crime dramas; instead of all blacks and blues, there are some really smart uses of bright primary reds (see the poster) and yellows that make the film more visually exciting.

As a native Atlantan, I feel I have to comment on the use of my city in a large scale film–and not as background, or as a stand in for Rio de Janiero (thanks, Fast Five), but as the modern city of Atlanta. The city was shot in an exciting way, taking advantage of the long elevated streets, yellow-lit underground parking, and classical architecture. It was fun to see my city being really used in this way, but I think the movie tries a bit too hard to remind the viewers where they are, especially since the story focuses on the Russian mafia and Latino gangs, two groups that, as far as I'm aware, do not have a large presence in Atlanta. It definitely felt like maybe one half of the script was meant to be in New York and the other in LA–outside of the cinematography, there is nothing unique to Atlanta built into the story outside of a few ridiculous lines: "This ain't Buckhead!"

Triple 9 is a movie that had a lot of things going for it, but in the end, there's only so much a great cast and crew can do with a messy script. This might be the first major misstep for John Hillcoat, unfortunately, just through his being attached to the project. Here's to hoping that the talented cast involved here move on to something where their characters get a bit more individual thought and background.

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