“Triple 9” is a shaggy, uneven heist thriller that isn’t about the heists — it’s about the guys committing them, the cops chasing them and the Russian Jewish mobsters pulling the strings and setting all the mayhem in motion.
A clever ticking clock mystery, it tries your patience even if it is giving some of the best character actors in the movies plenty of screen time to chew the scenery, try on accents and make jokes in even the bloodiest, darkest moments.
The title comes from a flaw in police procedures and in cop psychology. Because some of these guys committing these Atlanta heists are dirty cops.
Chiwitel Ejiofor heads the crew of thieves, ruthless hoodlums with “special skills” whose bank robberies have a touch of “shock and awe” about them. Anthony Mackie and Clifton Collins, Jr.( “Capote”) handle weapons, Norman Reedus (“The Walking Dead”) is the wheel-man, and Aaron Paul (“Breaking Bad”) is the wheel-man’s strung-out ex-cop brother.
The film’s opening scene is a beautifully staged and shot meeting in a darkened back alley BMW. The film’s opening caper has real mayhem, tasers, silent threats to a bank manager (showing computer printouts of his family, house, etc.) and a bank teller wetting herself and the carpet where she’s forced to lie perfectly still.
John Hillcoat did “The Road” and “Lawless,” so we lean into the screen as the complications set in during the getaway. The heist goes wrong. There’s a weak member in that crew.
And then the stoned, bedraggled Detective Allen, played by a seriously unkempt and drawling Woody Harrelson, shows up to investigate. “The MONSTER has gone DIGITAL,” he announces, speculating on the sophistication of the crooks.
Before “Triple 9” is over, we’ll see just how monstrous these monsters can be. Casey Affleck is the cop who calls Det. Allen “Uncle Jeff,” and who is newly assigned to partner with one of the dirty cops.
And Kate Winslet (not her subtlest work) is the snarling bleached blonde Russian Jew who runs her imprisoned husband’s mob from the man’s kosher deli. She wears her Star of David with pride, her Israeli underworld connections with honor.
They’re “La Kosher Nostra!” Allen cracks.
The cops — clean and dirty — are distracted by a Latino gang war that results in beheadings (“How they get way over here?” “Probably lookin’ for their BODIES.”) and a protracted chase and shootout.
But the main game is that “one last job,” the one the mob mistress orders and circumstances dictate that the reluctant gang must carry out.
There’s a jokiness to the proceedings, white cops mimicking Latino slang (“Know what I’m sayin?'”), cops ordering shop owners to “Go smoke a cigarette” while they take over the store for a quick argument.
That doesn’t hide the script’s detours or the strain of having an Oscar winner and seven “name” co-stars to service with scenes, dialogue and a reason to be in the film. Poor Teresa Palmer (“The Choice”) is odd woman out.
But that 14th glance at your watch is the important one, because that’s when you realize that all of this has to come to a head, the grim actions hinted at will be acted upon, the title will be explained and demonstrated and somebody will have to figure this all out to the audience’s satisfaction.
Hillcoat may drag out the middle acts, but the last thirty minutes are genuinely pulse-pounding, surprising, well-crafted and acted with bite and resolve by actors who let us see their characters figuring out this bloody, bullet-riddled puzzle in the City Too Busy to Hate.
“This ain’t Buckhead, awright?”
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence and language throughout, drug use and some nudity
Cast: Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Winslet, Anthony Mackie, Clifton Collins Jr., Woody Harrelson, Aaron Paul, Teresa Palmer
Credits: Directed by John Hillcoat, script by Matt Cook. An Open Road release.
Running time: 1:55