Rating: R
Stars: Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Clifton Collins Jr., Woody Harrelson, Kate Winslet
Writer: Matt Cook
Director: John Hillcoat
Distributor: Open Road Films
Release Date: February 26, 2016

Woody Harrelson as Detective Jeffrey Allen in TRIPLE 9 | © 2016 Open Road Films

Woody Harrelson as Detective Jeffrey Allen in TRIPLE 9 | © 2016 Open Road Films

TRIPLE 9 – that is, 999 – is the U.S. police radio code for “officer down” (it’s also the British equivalent of dialing 911). When the signal is sent out, virtually every officer in the city converges on the site of the incident, leaving very few cops to deal with other crimes that may be happening at the same time.

In TRIPLE 9, a gang of Atlanta, Georgia bank robbers consisting of ex-military personnel and crooked cops uses this knowledge to attempt an epically tough heist.

This is an instance where a great premise gets bogged down in the execution. To start with the positives, director John Hillcoat stages some bravura action sequences and he’s assembled a stellar cast, with Chiwetel Ejiofor as the gang’s conflicted leader and Woody Harrelson as a decent but exhausted detective sergeant both standing out.

However, Matt Cook’s script crams a little too much into the story, muscling out the time for characterization that the whole enterprise requires. The idea of extreme moral compromise is of course great drama, but to get that, we first need to feel that the characters have reasons to be conflicted about what they’re doing.  We meet the gang when they’re already up to speed. The police officers moonlighting as criminals are not the main characters, so we’re never made to feel the kind of overwhelming internal crisis that would draw us in to these people’s psyches.

There’s a similar issue with the protagonists. Ejiofor’s Atwood is suitably capable, desperate, angry and resentful, while Harrelson’s Jeffrey Allen is convincingly unhappy, but we don’t get enough detail on either one to get a sense of how they got to where they are now.

Then there’s Casey Affleck as good-guy cop Chris Allen, Jeffrey’s nephew, who is at the center of the action but is drawn with relatively little nuance. Affleck does a good job with the role, but Chris isn’t given much in the way of distinctive personality traits, let alone anything that might really give him pause.

A large part of the plot is given over to the Russian-Jewish-Israeli mob operating in Atlanta, with Kate Winslet as its local chieftain. This doesn’t necessarily have to be one wrinkle too many, but the film doesn’t seem to know how to make the incongruity work for it, or what it wants to say about the clashes of race and social standing that it puts on display.

Director Hillcoat did fine work some years back with THE PROPOSITION, another film of crime and compromised law enforcement. That movie drew us in by taking its time and presenting its people with authority. TRIPLE 9 is much more densely populated and eventful, but it winds up not being able to live up to the promise of its rich concept.

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