Director John Hillcoat’s films have a habit of falling just shy of greatness. ‘The Proposition’, ‘The Road’ and especially ‘Lawless’ had all the right elements in place, but seemed to buckle under their own dramatic seriousness and weighty big-name performances. Well, it turns out that all Hillcoat had to do was lighten up. A dirty-cop thriller that never lets its scuzzy urban backdrop and tough-guy characters get in the way of a rocket-fuel plot, ‘Triple 9’ is his most enjoyable and perhaps best movie to date.
The cast is phenomenal. Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as the head badass in a band of bank-robbing Atlanta cops, with Anthony Mackie as his taciturn right-hand man and Aaron ‘Breaking Bad’ Paul as the obligatory loose cannon who’s sure to get them all busted. Casey Affleck plays a bright-eyed recruit who signs up with Woody Harrelson’s loose-living detective sergeant to track them down, while Kate Winslet practically rips the screen in two as the mad-eyed Russian mob boss who keeps Ejiofor’s cojones in a vice.
Tight, taut and brilliantly structured, ‘Triple 9’ is old-school to the core (flash back 40 years and Gene Hackman would have been a lock for Ejiofor’s embattled anti-hero). The characterisation may be a touch thin: we know from his first scene where Aaron Paul’s sketchy deadbeat is headed. But the moments of tension are powerfully handled – a late-in-the-day heist sequence is nailbiting – and when it all explodes into inevitable violence, we’re right there in the trenches.
There may be little here we haven’t seen before – glassy reflections of Michael Mann’s ‘Heat’ pop up everywhere you look – but it’s all carried off with brashness and momentum by a director who genuinely seems to be having a blast. Fans of ‘The Wire’, James Ellroy, freeway shootouts, black balaclavas, burning trucks, betrayal and the words ‘everybody get on the floor!’, step right up.