“Triple 9” has everything going for it, and that’s its biggest handicap.
This tale of gangsters and crooked cops in Atlanta has a murderer’s row of acting talent — Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Winslet and Woody Harrelson among them — an alluringly dark premise and bombastic bursts of greatness. But ultimately, director John Hillcoat (“The Proposition,” “The Road”) fails to meld the storytelling with the film’s ambitious scope, the way Michael Mann so proficiently did 21 years ago with his modern classic “Heat.”
“Triple 9” starts out auspiciously enough, with a pulsating bank robbery that crackles with tension as the criminals execute the heist and begin their escape through the gritty city. It’s the kind of drawn-out sequence that can be enough to propel an entire film as you wait for another set piece to top it. There is one other masterfully choreographed raid about midway through, but by then you’re almost too caught up in the confusing who, what, where and why to indulge in the excitement.
Hillcoat, working from screenwriter Matt Cook’s script, trusts the audience to weave together the narratives of its eight main characters without the help of exposition — a welcome challenge, but a frustrating one as well. There are just so many characters, subplots and motivations to keep track of that the film feels more like an extended pilot in the vein of “The Wire” or even “True Detective” than a contained movie.
Essentially, a cabal of mercenary cops (Anthony Mackie, Clifton Collins Jr.) and tattooed, ex-military baddies (Aaron Paul and Norman Reedus, playing grease ball brothers) do dirty jobs for Russian-Israeli gangsters (led by Irina — Kate Winslet, packing a thick accent, blond bouffant and vampy press-on nails).
After the opening heist doesn’t go exactly as planned, Irina demands one last job of her ringleader (Ejiofor), who is forever tied to her whims because of the son he shares with her sister (Gal Gadot, who amounts to no more than scantily clad set dressing). Irina is trying to get her husband out of a foreign prison, and the answer apparently lies in Atlanta Homeland Security facilities.
Have you already lost track? It’s not hard to, and we’re only part of the way there. The crooked cops decide that the only way to break into the facilities is to stage a compelling distraction in another part of town — a “999,” code for officer down. The unlucky sap they settle on to be the sacrificial lamb is the chief’s (Harrelson) nephew (Affleck), who just moved to town and started work at the station.
Things only get murkier and more complicated.
The talented and endlessly watchable cast helps the confusing story chug along, even after you’ve given up hope of really understanding what exactly is going on or caring about any of the characters. In fact, for the most part, you just crave more scenes with Ejiofor, Mackie, Harrelson and Collins. Affleck, in particular, proves once again that not only is he the more talented Affleck brother but could also be one of the greats of his generation if he could just find films and roles worthy of his gift.
“Triple 9” imagines itself a sprawling, nihilistic epic, and it floats along for a while on the shoulders of its prestige filmmaking and cast, but ultimately the storytelling just isn’t up to the task.
Rated R. Time: 1:55.