Diversity is in full effect in the recently released thriller “Triple Nine,” although most of its multi-ethnic cast fails to display any redeeming qualities during this 115-minute potboiler. The sheer number of characters and plot lines might force theater-goers to invest in multiple viewings to comprehend its convoluted script. The tagline on the “one-sheet” poster used to advertise this neo-noir style of filmmaking states, “The code of the street is never black and white,”—a fitting clarification for the moral underpinnings of this ambiguous yarn of conflicting loyalty and deception.
The title itself is a play on the police dispatch code “Nine-Nine-Nine,” translated as “Urgent help needed / Officer Down,” the clarion call for every blue suit to drop what they’re doing to help a brother in peril. “Triple 9” is by no means an original offering, since it borrows from any number of cop/psychological thrillers including “Heat,” “The Town,” and especially “Training Day.”
Heading up the respective crook- and law-enforcement entourage are Kate Winslet, who plays a Lady Macbeth-derived Israeli/Russian crime boss, filling in for her jailbird husband as she presides over a motley crew of corrupt cops and ex-special ops veterans, and Casey Affleck as an upright, wet-behind-the-ears newbie policeman, who may not be as naïve as he appears.
The movie’s strength is it’s stellar cast, including Anthony Mackie as a morally-conflicted lawman; character actor supreme Clifton Collins Jr. as his all-the-way-to-the-dark side colleague; and Woody Harrelson as Affleck’s burnt-out but philosophical veteran detective uncle. Further down on the credits is the “Wire’s” Michael K. Williams in a small but pivotal cameo appearance.
In this age of globalization, modern Atlanta might easily pass for L.A. or any other cosmopolitan city boasting a sizable Third World population (who knew that Mara Salvatrucha was holding it down deep in the Peachtree City)?
First-time screenwriter Matt Cook fashions a world wherein tolerance and harmony are not a high priority. Winslet, deep into character wearing a blonde wig, crimson pumps, and a Star of David prominently splayed across her low-cut cleavage, concedes her sister’s (beauty queen-turned-model-turned-actress Gal Gadot, who plays Wonder Woman in the upcoming “Batman vs. Superman”) spellbinding loveliness while disparaging her choice of a Black bedmate (Chiwetel Ejiofor, the leader of Winslet robbery crew). This union has produced a yarmulka-wearing biracial toddler (cute-as-a-button Blake McLennan), whom Winslet alternatively dotes on (in spite of her casual racism) and using him as a pawn to force Ejiofor to execute her nefarious schemes. In this world, miscegenation is a flimsy cloak for the prejudice and xenophobia-entrenched scoundrels on both sides of the law.
Australian director John Hillcoat is a proven talent (“Lawless,” “The Proposition,” and “The Road”) who does not quite effectively utilize all the moving parts in this film. The themes on display here are topics he has probed before (and possibly better). Building upon the tenet that this is a tale that has been told before, the performances, while competent, are rehashes of similar characterizations. Affleck’s do-the-right-thing-straight arrow is a spin off of Ethan Hawke’s “Training Day” rookie, while Harrelson’s tarnished but dependable good ole boy persona is a rehash of roles he has personally rendered in “Rampart,” and “True Detective.”
The rest of the cast individually fit archetype caricatures, and it’s a credit to their collective acting chops that they are able to keep the tale engaging. At the helm, Hillcoat displays a deft hand at ratcheting the action up and down (particularly effective is a sequence in which a SWAT unit raids a housing project), while multiple-Oscar nominee (with one win thus far) Winslet, who could probably play the Russian king/queen pin in her sleep, dominates the screen while orchestrating murders with a sweep of her manicured talons.
For those not expecting a classic on the order of, say, Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed,” “Triple 9” makes for satisfying entertainment.