With eye-catching set pieces, a superb cast, palm-sweating tension and a twisting plot, Triple 9 gives the heist movie a new lease of life
Triple 9 (15) | Rating: **** | Directed by John Hillcoat | Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Casey Affleck, Kate Winslet, Woody Harrelson, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul
Trading the bleak rural landscapes of The Proposition, The Road and Lawless for the gang-riddled streets of contemporary Atlanta, Australian director John Hillcoat imbues this hardworking heist thriller with a grainy authenticity and keeps its convoluted plot in good working order. Dropping us into a murky world of corrupt cops and Russian mobsters via a brilliantly choreographed robbery that ends with a shootout on a gridlocked highway, Triple 9 may come on as a yet another sombre and serious exploration of the thin line between law and disorder, but it’s actually more interested in exploring the degree to which that line has been obliterated altogether in an age in which governments, corporations and criminal organisations now operate with apparent impunity.
That hopeless worldview is embodied in the first instance by Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Michael Belmont, a former private military contractor now running a crew of ex-soldiers and corrupt cops with an abstract appreciation for the job they originally signed on to do.
Figuring their skills are better served as bank robbers and professional guns for hire, they’ve become tangled up with the Russian mob thanks to a tricky family connection that makes Michael vulnerable to the whims of Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet), the Russian-Israeli wife of an incarcerated gangster who has taken to running her husband’s operation with cold-blooded efficacy.
She wants Michael and his crew to carry out an even more dangerous and impossible-seeming heist than the robbery they’ve just undertaken. This job that requires Michael, his right-hand man Marcus (Anthony Mackie), Marcus’s detective colleague Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr), and brothers Russell and Gabe (played by The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus and Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul) to break into an NSA compound to steal some data.
Irina’s powers of persuasion are exercised with deadly force when they have to be, which in turn forces Michael and co to take extreme action to pull off a job that will require them to distract the entire police force for long enough to get the job done.
That’s a lot of plot to chew through before the film really kicks into gear, but Hillcoat – working from a tight script by first-timer Matt Cook – handles it with real precision, swiftly sketching out the stakes before introducing another major plot strand in the form of Casey Affleck’s newly transferred cop, Chris Allen. He’s a bit of an idealist who just wants to make a difference, and while his character may sound clichéd (he also has a young son and a pretty wife at home), Affleck imbues him with a world-weariness that makes him seem less green when he’s suddenly partnered up with Mackie’s Marcus – unaware that his new partner’s extracurricular activities don’t bode well for him.
There are further twists and turns courtesy of Woody Harrelson’s arrival on the scene as both Chris’s uncle and the lead detective in the Major Crime Unit’s investigation into the opening heist. Such coincidences don’t feel like hokey plot contrivances, though. Instead they function as solid grounding for the propulsive character-driven action thriller that follows. Indeed, even when Cook’s script falls back on major breakthroughs in the case being divulged via loose-lipped hookers, the world created within the film feels authentic enough – the Atlanta locations are as close and clammy as the action – that such coincidences feel plausible.
It helps that Hillcoat has assembled such a stellar cast. In the smaller supporting roles, it’s good to see Reedus and, especially, Aaron Paul making the transition from brilliant television to the big screen in something a little more worthy of their talents. And at a time when Hollywood is rightly being called out on its lack of diversity, Triple 9 thinks nothing of casting Mackie and Ejiofor as Affleck’s co-leads, giving them the most interesting character arcs to boot.
That said, it is a very male-dominated movie and soon-to-be Wonder Woman Gal Cadot barely makes an impact as Ejiofor’s mob-connected ex. And yet Winslet deserves some kudos for stepping out of her comfort zone to play the untouchable criminal mastermind orchestrating much of the chaos. Made before shooting her Bafta-winning role in Steve Jobs, she may embrace Irina’s theatricality – particularly the Bond villain accent and the backcombed blonde hair – but she’s quietly sinister too, whether poring over dismembered body parts in the trunk of a car or making veiled threats to Ejiofor’s Michael.
Hillcoat also has a good sense of how to orchestrate action without loosing narrative impetus. The two heists are the high points, but a seemingly unconnected raid on a gang-controlled housing estate is a masterful reminder that movies don’t need building-destroying mayhem and multiple pile-ups to create palm-sweating tension, just technical know-how and good actors. What an unexpected treat.
Freeheld (15) | Rating: ** | Directed by Peter Sollett | Starring Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Michael Shannon, Steve Carell
Based on the true story of a terminally ill female detective’s fight to have her pension benefits transferred to her girlfriend in the wake of her death, this small-scale drama features decent-enough performances from the Julianne Moore and Ellen Page, right, as the New Jersey-based couple in question. Unfortunately, perfunctory direction renders dull what could have been a compelling story about the need for equality in a job where decades’ worth of gender discrimination has been compounded by systemic homophobia. Worse still, the lead performances (and the story’s themes) are undermined by a third act star-turn from Steve Carell as a flamboyant gay rights campaigner. His performance hits all the wrong notes, coming off as comic relief instead of bringing much-needed levity at a tragic point in the story.
The Finest Hours (PG) | Rating: ** | Directed by Craig Gillespie | Starring Chris Pine, Holliday Grainger, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster
This Disney drama, about the US coastguard’s famous 1952 attempt to rescue the crew of an oil tanker torn in half during a terrible storm has a great cast and some good effects work, but the movie sinks like the other half of the aforementioned vessel.
Blame the clunkiness of its old-fashioned script and a slew of performances hemmed in by the film’s idealised conception of life in the 1950s. Period authenticity certainly wasn’t a prime concern – nobody smokes, swears or can even bring them selves to mutter mild euphemisms – and Chris Pine’s desperate-to-prove-himself coastguard captain is a pretty dreary entry point into the story. As his feisty fiancée, Holiday Grainger makes the best of a worried-wife-at-home role, while seasoned pros Casey Affleck (in his second major role this week) and Ben Foster struggle heroically as they negotiate turbulent storms with gee-whiz dialogue and positive attitudes.
Bone Tomahawk (18) | Rating: *** | Directed by S Craig Zahler | Starring Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins
It’s hard to resist a film that promises cowboys and cannibals, but S Craig Zahler’s debut feature nods to the more indulgent side of Quentin Tarantino without offering the requisite genre subversion to compensate. Set in the (very) wild west and starring The Hateful Eight’s Kurt Russell, Bone Tomahawk sets a gory tone right off the bat, but goes for a slow burn approach as Russell’s Sheriff Hunt leads an old-timer (Richard Jenkins), a professional killer (Matthew Fox), and Patrick Wilson’s injured cowboy on a hopeless-seeming mission to rescue Wilson’s wife from the clutches of an indigenous tribe of flesh-munching troglodytes. The film fairly revels in the esoteric banter that emerges from this disparate posse, but as entertaining as it is to watch Russell and co it also strains the patience. The kill-crazy ending does make up for it, though.