Director: John Hillcoat
We take formidable, solid filmmaking for granted. A film casually airing on cable at 3 PM on a Saturday afternoon does not get studied in a screenwriting class, which strikes me as patently absurd. The stereotypical “TNT film” is playing in the middle of the day because the core stories work: one could tune in right in the middle and only need five minutes to catch up on the proceedings. Think about how many movies actually successfully pull that off. Western director John Hillcoat tackles the modern Atlanta crime scene for his latest, TRIPLE 9, one of the most affecting and upper-tier “TNT” films in recent memory.
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A majority of TRIPLE 9 is shown through a shaky, handheld lens, lending a tense immediacy to the myriad of betrayals and heists; when scored by Atticus Ross, the police raids maintain a steely cool, propelled by chilly synth and heavy bass. It wets the palms, races heart. The tinny music fits the characters, empty voids who serve to function within the narrative and nothing more. It’s a lose-lose. If the characters are warm and inviting, the pervasive menace of TRIPLE 9 suffers. If the characters are frigid and distant, the menace is preserved, but, and as can be seen in the finished product, you’re left a subpar ensemble piece. Luckily, the cast assembled is so high caliber that even the thinnest of writing sounds like Shakespeare coming out of the mouths of Chiwitel Ejiofor and Clifton Collins Jr., the latter of whom is a key player in the remarkable ending of TRIPLE 9, a one-on-one set piece that threatens to push Hillcoat back to his roots and stage a straight-up Mexican standoff.
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Curt and unforgiving, the film concludes on a freeze frame of a side character and fades to credits after a moment of brief resolution, granting only a few seconds of momentary relief before sending you on your merry way. TRIPLE 9 is mean and, for essentially being a condensed season of THE WIRE, lean. It remains a very good film, but frustratingly cuts itself off from greatness with its weak character work and near-fearfulness to embrace its setting. Besides the impressive heists and shootouts (more terrifying than anything in last year’s SICARIO) the most valuable portions are the Atlanta-centric diversions. There’s flavor here, most notably a bizarre and incredible cameo from Michael K. Williams, but a lot of the succulent fat seems to have been trimmed. Regardless, for a mere February crime thriller, TRIPLE 9 is a brazen, captivating, and sweat-lathered tale of bruised ego and machismo.