I love when A-list actors commit to B-movies like Triple 9, imbuing genre pulp with a sense of sincerity and importance. Make no mistake, despite its rather conventional story (with some wrongly considering “conventional” and “crappy” to be interchangeable) there’s really nothing B-rate about the film. It’s about a heist crew consisting of ex-soldiers and very dirty cops, opening with a no-nonsense, highly stylized bank robbery – it’s another film about people who do their job very well, crafted by people who do their job very well. When hard boiled pulp is done this well, it becomes a bit more than just pulp.
Triple 9 is packed with acting talent (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Kate Winslet), and while most of these actors are far better than the caricatures and stereotypes written for them here, that’s part of the point I’m trying to make – director John Hillcoat is pushing forward a thick and convoluted plot as fast as he can, but as tense as he crafts his action sequences he realizes true suspense stems from character. Mackie’s playing a corrupt cop here, given little development other than the impression audiences bring into the theater – he’s always a warm presence, giving us something to weigh all of his character’s nastiness against. Ejiofor’s innate human quality, that look in his eyes that demands empathy, is here, his character Michael committing vile acts to save his kid. My point is this: the actors do not disrespect their roles, and other than perhaps Aaron Paul, they don’t overplay it (save for Winslet, who is called to as a Russian mob boss, and it’s delicious). They take a script that has little time for character development, and along with Hillcoat, elevate it.
Ultimately though, this is conventional genre fare executed professionally. John Hillcoat doesn’t transcend the genre via unconventional plotting or character (both of which are as stock as it gets), rather by plunging into the material vigorously. He elevates it by lowering himself into it. Triple 9 has its twists and turns, but from the get-go it bleeds pure fatalism. We feel the Georgia heat and haze in every frame. Characters look like they haven’t bathed in weeks, and everyone always looks sweaty and greasy. It’s as if the whole film is popping pills and smoking cheap cigars just like its characters. Many images are crass and crude, but they have to be.
Hillcoat stages the action with a reverence for process that heightens the impact of every bullet fired. You can almost smell the corruption and helplessness, and Hillcoat brings it out in ways the screenplay can’t. Triple 9 is dark, its most powerful images arising from its figurative and literal sense of darkness. Paced with the no-nonsense, we-get-only-what-we-need economy of other thrillers, this is pure, effective genre pulp. The cast grounds it, lending it credibility, and Hillcoat’s eye is sublime, his images grimy and vile and abrasively unsubtle (red smoke upon neon red lighting – moral haziness and plain old Death). It ends conventionally, and the body count piles up, but that’s the way it has to be. Triple 9 runs on pure nihilism – no one bats an eye at mutilated bodies in car trunks, or a corpse slumped in a shopping cart, but when a cop is shot and wounded (code 999) the whole force comes running.