It's been a few years since we've seen a truly impressive heist film, but John Hillcoat's Triple 9 is here to remind us what one looks like.
Director: John Hillcoat
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Casey Affleck, Kate Winslet, Anthony Mackie
This movie starts out so well that the bank robbery that plays over its opening credits ranks among the best I've ever seen committed to film. Ex-special forces soldier Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor) leads a five man team — his former spec ops buddy Russell (Norman Reedus), Russell's younger brother Gabe (Aaron Paul), and two dirty cops, Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Jorge (Clifton Collins Jr.) — as they bypass the cash in the vault and retrieve a safety deposit box for the Russian mob. It's a close call but they get away, and that was supposed to be all there was to it...until mafia leader Irina (Kate Winslet) refuses to pay them for their services, blackmailing them into another job that sounds nearly impossible to achieve. In order to pull it off, they'll need to orchestrate a 999 (the police code for "officer down") so the cops are distracted on one side of Atlanta while the gang breaks in to a heavily guarded Homeland Security building on the other.
Meanwhile, a detective (Woody Harrelson) investigates the initial robbery as his idealistic cop nephew Chris (Casey Affleck) gets partnered with Marcus and becomes the target for the 999. As the film races toward its finale, the influence of Scorsese's The Departed becomes more explicit: a lot of people start getting shot in the head, and we're left wondering which, if any, of these characters will live until the end credits.
Hillcoat rarely relies on sweeping wide shots, instead opting to keep everyone relatively close to the camera and creating a sense of claustrophobia that gives us the feeling of being right alongside his characters. The film's centerpiece action scene is a daring police raid that turns into a shootout, but before the bullets start flying, we're dropped in with Affleck's character behind a ballistic shield as he and his team move with precision throughout an apartment building. It's a heart-pounding sequence, made even more intense when it spills outside and transitions into a full-blown firefight with deadly consequences.
The film posits a bleak but realistic world, and builds it out with small but convincing details. In the opening robbery, the thieves show a scared bank manager pictures of his family they found online in order to convince him to help them open the safety deposit box. When three decapitated heads are found in gang territory, two police officers stand in front of the scene and hold up a white sheet to shield it from peeking bystanders. It's little touches like these that make the story feel real and not just like a collection of action movie scenes. Thematically, the movie covers familiar ground — it's about retaining idealism vs. having to "out-monster the monster," as Harrelson's character says — but the execution is so strong, it makes up for its narrative conventionality.
With a cast this stacked, it's no surprise that the performances are solid across the board. Worth mentioning: Winslet resurrects her Steve Jobs accent as the ruthless mafia leader and chews the scenery with deadpan lines like, "I do not like the sea. There's something idiotic about it," while Paul slips back into junkie Jesse Pinkman mode as the troubled Gabe.
Triple 9 kicks down the door of the heist movie pantheon and announces its presence like a shotgun blast. I don't see it becoming a breakout hit (it doesn't have the stylized slickness or the pure star power of The Departed and I doubt it'll be nominated for anything, much less Best Picture), but this riveting cops and robbers classic will easily become an action movie staple.