Like every film made since 1995 to feature a bank heist, John Hillcoat’s Triple 9 arrives prepackaged with suggested comparisons to Michael Mann’s Heat that it never earns because of its dreary literal-mindedness. Mann certainly would never shoot a scene like the one that opens this film, in which a group of crooked cops finalizes the details of their planned bank job. Where the dialogue in Heat is abundant in deeply researched criminal argot, with direct reference circumvented through insider slang, Hillcoat’s characters speak so bluntly that each man sounds like he’s wearing a wire.
The po-faced severity of the film undercuts the inherent absurdity of the actual heist, in which the greed of ex-cop Gabe (Aaron Paul) disrupts the crew’s precise snatch of a safety deposit box by grabbing some dummy cash filled with a dye pack that explodes in the getaway. Half-botching the job, the team incurs the wrath of the Russian mafiosos backing them, leading to the execution of Gabe’s special ops-trained brother, Russel (Norman Reedus), and instructions to raid a local Department of Homeland Security facility to retrieve the files to unlock the contents of the stolen box.
The mere involvement of the Russian mob, which is headquartered in a kosher abattoir, should open the film to far-fetched humor, and at times the action suggests that a more interesting and open-ended influence might not have been Mann, but rather the Coen brothers, who might have taken the cops’ convoluted plot to kill rookie cop Chris Allen (Casey Affleck) to the level of farce. Instead, the film is dour to the point that it undermines the morass of guilt and doubt that drives the narrative’s moral arc, reducing Gabe’s nervous breakdown to flashes of compromising instability and simplifying Detective Marcus Atwood’s (Anthony Mackie) deep reservations about killing another officer until he can barely be distinguished from Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr.), the most cold-hearted of their crew. Everything is shot in pallid gray, dull orange, and gunmetal blue, like some horrid approximation of the American flag. It’s a color palette that stresses one-note despair at every turn.
Like Sabotage, another nasty B movie about corrupt cops committing crimes, Triple 9 was filmed in Atlanta and makes the city its actual setting. Yet for all the helicopter shots of the skyline and the pandering references to certain neighborhoods, the film’s location shooting largely amounts to a scenic tour of parking garages and tunnels. Even the menagerie of well-known but incongruous actors like Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Winslet, and Gal Gadot gives the impression that casting directors simply drove to and from existing Atlanta shoots and recruited any and all willing talent. The chemistry between the actors is nonexistent, and few are convincing on their own, least of all Affleck, who, despite his youthful charms, can’t disguise the fact that a 40-year-old cannot remotely pass for some green kid fresh out of the academy.
Making the best of things is Woody Harrelson, who plays the local precinct sergeant (and Chris’s uncle) with the gleeful indifference he brings to all his paycheck roles. Speaking with a mumbled good-ol’-boy accent that doesn’t naturally occur within 40 miles of Atlanta’s epicenter, Harrelson is a more benign form of Harvey Keitel’s titular Bad Lieutenant: a pot-smoking vulgarian with a short fuse who nonetheless viciously defends the honor of his badge and the safety of those under his charge. No one told the actor to stop having fun, and as a result he cuts through the killjoy somberness his colleagues adopt, and with an abandon that consistently enlivens the film.
Hillcoat’s methodical style does, though, benefit the action. The early heist resembles the majority of cinematic heist sequences, but the clarity of the cutting and the simple camera movements keep focus on the armed thieves’ professionalism, and the images only become chaotic when Gabe’s mistake sends his group into disarray. The finest sequence concerns a raid on a Latino gang lieutenant in a run-down project building, and as cops raid the man’s apartment, they discover a series of knocked-out walls between units that turns the complex into a maze filled with potential hiding places. The camera tags along with the police, not cutting as they fan out in each room to check corners, but bobbing in and out of cover with them. It’s a nerve-wracking sequence that makes the most of its simplicity, and it suggests a more idiosyncratic, ambitious film that might have been.