Monday, March 14, 2016

Triple 9

Alternate Title:  Atlanta Heat

One sentence synopsis:    A crew of armed robbers decide to kill a police officer in order to buy themselves enough time to perform one last job for the Russian Mafia.


Things Havoc liked:Though a fair number of people regarded it as highly overrated, I've long held that Michael Mann's 1995 crime film Heat is one of the greatest movies of its genre and its decade, a tour-de-force crime drama starring some of the greatest actors in Hollywood at the top of their games, including Robert De Niro before he began phoning everything in, and Al Pacino at the height of his screaming-insanity phase. Heat was a spellbinding film, one that followed both cops and organized criminals through their lives, their careers, and the pressures they faced trying to do their jobs and defeat one another, and in many ways, Heat stamped its mark on all such films to come, most of which, as is common enough in Holylwood, were not worthy of the heritage they had been given. Still, the nature of film is that when one movie fails, another steps forth to try again, and I've continued to patronize organized crime and heist drama films in the hopes of finding something similar to the masterpiece I saw twenty years ago. With that in mind, this week I sat down to watch the latest offering of John Hillcoat, an Australian director whose credits include the underrated Lawless and the perennially miserable The Road, as he tried to recapture the magic with a new slate of excellent actors plunged into the dark worlds of organized crime and policing.

And excellent actors these are. Triple 9 stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, a man whom I shall one day learn to pronounce the name of, as Michael Atwood, the leader of a crew of organized criminals and corrupt cops, who engage in high-stakes, violent armed robberies of difficult, well-secured targets. Among his crew are crooks played by solid character actors Norman Reedus (Boondock Saints, Walking Dead), and Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad), as well as a pair of crooked cops, played by Clifton Collins and one of my favorite actors of recent years, MCU's Anthony Mackie. Following a successful heist, a double-cross, and a need to perform the obligatory "one more job", the crew struggles with putting a plan together to allow them to break into a nearly-impenetrable DHS black-bag facility without being captured by the police task force assigned to do just that. Every one of these actors, whether I've liked them before or not, is excellent in this film, portraying hard, violent, frightened men, some of them holding things together better than others, trying to get ahead in their lives as both the cops and the Russian mob make their lives difficult. But the standout surprise here is the head of the Russian mob in question, an unrecognizable Kate Winslet of all people, playing the widow/wife of an imprisoned Russian mobster, willing and capable of any act of violent depravity necessary to getting her way. I've long-since forgiven Winslet for Titanic, and I praised her earlier this year in Alan Rickman's A Little Chaos, but I legitimately did not even recognize Winslet in this role until the credits ran, so staggeringly alien is it to everything she has ever done previous to this, and so effortlessly does she embody a character one would normally associate with people like Kristin Scott Thomas.

But as with Heat, the crooks are only half of the cast, as we also have non-corrupt police, particularly Officer Chris Allen, played by Casey Affleck, younger brother of Ben. I was never the biggest fan of Casey Affleck, having assumed, as I imagine did everyone else, that he only rose to prominence on the coat tails of his brother. But then, about eight years ago, he began making movies like Gone Baby Gone (directed by his brother), Out of the Furnace, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, all of which were good movies, and all of which he was good in. And so he is here, playing not a fresh-faced rookie but a quiet, reserved cop who gradually begins to realize the magnitude of the events he is being enmeshed in when he becomes Anthony Mackie's (reluctant) partner. I was expecting something like Ethan Hawke in Training Day (not the worst model imaginable), but Affleck plays the character significantly cooler, as he struggles to figure out exactly what's happening in a situation that is rapidly spiraling out of control. It's an excellent performance overall, one that should flush away all concerns regarding nepotism in future endeavors.

Enough about the cast though, because the strength of Triple 9 is its direction and mood, a paranoid thriller that balances a vast number of competing agendas while giving us characters operating on partial information at best at all times. Normally this sort of thing is just annoying, as it relegates the audience to an hour or two of boredom while the characters slowly catch up to where we all are, but when the movie plays everyone as endangered and ignorant, regardless of their personal capacities, then things become much mo0re interesting. Ejiofor and Winslet's duel of wills, wherein he attempts to get paid and she attempts to extort more high-risk work from him, is compounded by all manner of complications, such as the fact that his ex-wife, with whom he has a son, is also her sister, a series of relationships that some of his crew know some elements of, and some do not. Characters routinely walk into rooms with double-agents that they don't know are double-agents, saved only by the fact that the double-agents have their own misconceptions about what the true dynamic is, and on and on. Meanwhile the gritty work of a police and crime procedural continues, and continues well. A standout sequence midway through the film involves Affleck, Mackie, and several other cops staging a high-risk arrest of a gang member by stacking up on a ballistic shield and systematically clearing an apartment building of threats. Shot in a single take, with minimal histrionics beyond the terse, quiet police code commands of professionals under intense strain, it's one of the best raw policing sequences I've seen in the movies, a testament to the skill with which Hillcoat and his crew have done their homework.


Things Havoc disliked: Not everyone makes off with kudos this time, as the film also stars Woody Harrelson as an alcoholic police lieutenant with assorted familial and professional connections to everyone involved (this is par for the course). Harrelson isn't awful, but plays the character way too far over the top, drawing far too many acting points from Al Pacino's detective in Heat without realizing that Triple 9 is a much more subdued movie, and that a red-eyed fanatic screaming at the top of his lungs while running people over doesn't quite fit the tone that the movie is going after. Pacino could get away with that sort of thing in Heat because Heat was that sort of movie, set in Los Angeles, a town accustomed to casual lunacy, and because the screaming that he engaged in was plainly an artifice designed to shock people into compliance. The film also has a bad habit of giving Harrelson what appears to be psychic powers and the capacity to teleport into situations he had no way of feasibly getting to, so as to allow him to save the day in a "cool" fashion. Not traits designed to endear a character to me, particularly not in a movie where the limitations of what particular characters know about each other at any given moment is so integral.


Final thoughts:     Despite all the comparisons I've been making, Triple 9 is not as good a movie as Heat was, but that's faint criticism if ever there was any. What it is, is a damn fine cops and robbers movie in the style of Heat, one with good actors and good direction underlying a story of crime and murder as compelling as any I've seen recently. Such flaws as mar the landscape don't serve to do more than push the movie down to a simple "good" rating, but a good movie is nothing to be ashamed of. Particularly in Doldrums Season, one takes what one can get.

 
Final Score:  7/10


Next Time:  The Eagle has Landed.

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