Remember when movie villains used to rob banks? It’s been a while since we saw a good, old-fashioned bank job, not one with a team of nerds who hack into a bank’s database without firing a single bullet. More like the one in Heat or the opening scene of The Dark Knight—swift, methodical, and necessarily brutal. Triple 9 opens with one of those bank robberies, and it sets the stage for a decidedly old-school action flick. Politically incorrect at its core, it’s a film in which the men curse, drink Jack Daniel’s, and hang out in strip clubs, and the women all have long legs and no brains.
That doesn’t mean Triple 9 is bad by definition, although the description above will surely keep some viewers away. It’s just that B-movies like it don’t get made much anymore, and when they do, they rarely lure prestige actors like Chiwetel Ejiofor, Woody Harrelson, and Kate Winslet. It’s often a challenge to figure out exactly what Triple 9 is, a problem exacerbated by a script that packs in far too much plot and not nearly enough guidance in figuring it out.
One thing is clear: Triple 9 is a true ensemble piece, with a dozen or so characters taking center stage, each one more corrupt than the last. The bank robbers are a team composed of cops gone bad (Clifton Collins Jr., Anthony Mackie) and criminals with heart, including devoted father Michael (Ejiofor) and sensitive, loose cannon Gabe (Aaron Paul). They work for Irina Vlaslov (Winslet), a Russian-Jewish gangster trying to spring her powerful husband from the Gulag. To do this, she has to steal something from the Department of Homeland Security (don’t ask what—I couldn’t tell you), so she convinces our team to take the job that, as one character inevitably puts it, “can’t be done.” Shockingly, they come up with a novel way to do it: Kill a cop across town, and when every officer on the force rushes to the scene, they’ll pull off the heist on the other side of the city. They call it a “triple 9,” the police code for an “officer down.”
And who is the unlucky mark for their scheme? It has to be Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), a recent transfer to the precinct and a big-hearted family man who also happens to be the nephew of the precinct’s strung-out sergeant (Harrelson). It’s a lot of balls to juggle, and as the plot lurches toward its inevitably bloody conclusion, the script by Matt Cook can’t quite keep up. Plot elements are introduced and then discarded. Allen is initially brought in to work on the bank robbery case, but we rarely see him on it.
Perhaps the biggest error is the glut of characters. A version that focused on the two flawed fathers (Affleck and Ejiofor), one on either side of the law, would have been worth watching, but the script spreads its plot so thin that none of the characters are onscreen enough to feel relevant. Furthermore, the actors do the film no favors. Collins and Mackie can’t bring any tortured gravitas to their roles as corrupt cops, and even Winslet is surprisingly flat. Only Harrelson stands out from the pack, mostly by providing comic relief. Seeing the famous stoner play a pot-smoking cop makes for a cheap but effective laugh, but it’s also the only time the film ever comes alive. The rest of the time, Triple 9 feels more like an embodiment of its cliched central plot device: a job gone wrong.
Triple 9 opens in theaters everywhere Friday.