by Peter J. O'Connell
Triple 9. Released: Feb. 2016. Runtime: 115 mins. MPAA Rating: R for strong violence and language throughout, drug use and some nudity.
911 is what citizens call to reach police or other first responders in an emergency. 999 is the code that police dispatchers use to send all units to respond to the grave emergency of “shots fired; officer down.” A 999 dispatch is a key factor in the grim new film Triple 9. In fact, Triple 9 is so grim that the numbers 999 might as well be inverted to become Satan's symbol, 666. The film is, in effect, a tour of a kind of hell with director John Hillcoot as our guide.
The hell is the world of organized crime in Atlanta, where a group of Russian gangsters is operating, using a kosher food business as a front. (One character jokingly refers to the crooks as the “Kosher Nostra.”) The hell is also the world of a group of corrupt cops, who work hand-in-glove with the gangsters.
The film begins with a bank robbery that becomes a shootout in the streets and then a wild car chase. This sequence is quite exciting, though not so much as the one on which it is modeled in 1994's Heat. Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is the link between the gangsters and the corrupt cops, some of whom served with him in the Middle East as special ops and military contractors. Michael's motivation is to gain custody of his son, whose mother is the niece of the crime boss, Irina (Kate Winslet).
The bank robbery was supposed to guarantee Michael the custody, but Irina insists that he organize one more job for her first, the theft of some material from the offices of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Irina believes that if she gains control of this material, it will lead to the release of her husband, who is imprisoned in Russia.
Michael reluctantly agrees to the vicious Irina's demands. He is attempting to figure out how to pull off the difficult DHS job when Franco (Clifton Collins, Jr.), one of the corrupt cops, suggests that they kill an honest cop, thus triggering a Code 999, which would send every cop in the city to an area far from the DHS. Michael agrees, but who should the victim be? Corrupt cop Marcus (Anthony Mackie) suggests that it be Marcus' new partner, Chris (Casey Affleck). Chris is a straight-arrow type, who has been accompanying Marcus on various duties directed at drug gangs in sleazy housing projects. Chris is also the nephew of Jeffrey (Woody Harrelson), a basically honest detective, though a drug user himself, who is following out leads from the bank robbery.
All these characters and others play roles in tightly winding and then unwinding the movie's complicated plot, which involves much graphic violence. Triple 9's premise is intriguing. Many of its scenes and settings are morbidly fascinating. Some of its acting is strong, though Winslet is not completely convincing as a Russian crime boss, and Affleck, so good in The Finest Hours, is disappointingly bland here. The major problem with the movie, however, is that with pretty much every character either in a hellish state of soul or moving toward one, it is hard to find anyone to care much about.