Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Movie Review: Triple 9 (2016)



For the average filmgoer (going purely by my own experiences pre-Critic), the most common conversation to spring up when it comes to what film they decide to go see goes something like this: “Hey, [famous Oscar-winning actor] is in this new movie? Wanna go?” “Nah, I don’t like that guy that much. How about that new [lesser-known but still popular actor] movie?” “How about [obscure actor that you mention only to appear cooler to your peers because you know something that they don’t]? She’s got a new movie out.” Okay, maybe that last one only happens when the filmgoer in question is talking to someone like me, but point still stands: Unless you’re someone who takes the time to look into who and/or what is behind the newest releases, it’s usually the cast list that takes precedent. But what happens when said film has an ensemble cast of actors that, hopefully, will end up causing debate over whose film it truly is. Of course, that’s usually the case with good films involving star-studded casts. Too bad we haven’t got one of those today, unfortunately. This is Triple 9.

The plot: Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his crew comprised of fellow criminals Gabe (Aaron Paul), his brother Russell (Norman Reedus) and crooked cops Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Franco (Clifton Collins Jr.) are hired to steal information, first from a bank and then from a government building, that could lead to the release of an incarcerated Russian mobster. However, in order to pull off the final job and appease Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet), the mobster’s wife, they have to create a diversion that will keep the police off their backs. And with the arrival of detective Chris (Casey Affleck), they may have found their window.

This film also features Teresa Palmer. I bring this up because my borderline conspiracy about actors like her and Jai Courtney being bad luck omens for any film they’re in is pretty much the only reason I can think of as to why the rest of the cast here are as weak as they are. Seriously, an ensemble cast like this comprised mostly of actors that have definitely impressed over the last handful of years shouldn’t be this underwhelming. Ejiofor plays a touch against type and gets to flex some intimidation on screen, which honestly isn’t a bad look for him. Paul, on the other hand, still hasn’t escaped his cone of weeny that he’s been stuck in for some time, trying to come across as unhinged but instead is rather petulant. Affleck still refuses to be worthy of note, save for completion’s sake. Mackie seems to have trouble reconciling the conflicting elements of his character, resulting in a rather confused performance. Harrelson is serviceable as probably the most morally balanced cop in the main cast, considering he actually manages to portray the murkier sides of his character well enough. Unfortunately, by film’s end, all it did was make me wish I was watching No Country For Old Men again if I wanted to see him play this type of role. But by far, the biggest misstep goes to Winslet. While she may have a tad unconvincing at accents back in Steve Jobs, she really doesn’t work as the Russian mob wife she plays here. It’s like the filmmakers collectively rolled a charisma check for her each scene and they kept getting duds, given how easily she wavers out of anything even remotely foreign-sounding in her voice.

Then again, this cast isn’t exactly given the best of stories to work with. Don’t get me wrong, the cat-and-mouse games being played are fun and Michael’s character motivation is solid, but it’s as if the writer had some sort of allergy to any kind of exposition as the plot details aren’t portrayed in the best of ways. Take Gabe’s character arc in this film, for instance. Now, on paper, this meant to be him mentally breaking under the pressure of both the work he’s doing and what it has cost him already, wanting to stop it from progressing any further. All we end up getting on screen, though, is someone who is apparently mentally unstable for ill-explained reasons. There’s also how quite a few plot threads end up hanging in the air, especially when we get to the film’s final reel. The writer seemed to have just gotten bored of writing for certain characters and either has them killed off unceremoniously or just left otherwise incapacitated. Either he didn’t get to finish writing the actual script of heavy chunks of it got edited out. Now, ordinarily, this lack of explanation could be excused if the director and crew were capable of portraying said details visually. However, it seems that they had other focuses in mind; namely, the action.

Here is where I give the film credit where it’s due, as the action scenes are pretty damn good. From the opening credits bank heist to the trekking through dark hallways to find criminals, Hillcoat definitely had a handle on creating a tense atmosphere for these scenes. It’s almost Michael Mann-esque in how meticulous these scenes are in their setups, from the claustrophobic cinematography at certain points courtesy of Nicolas Karakatsanis to Atticus Ross and co.’s moody electronic and trap soundtrack. It really seems like these are where all the effort was put in, as the actors definitely sell every hair-raising moment they’re given. It’s just that, when it comes to showing the whys of the plot, the film buckles under the pressure like Hillcoat didn’t know how to pair the great action beats with equally great dramatic beats. The trailer for the film, featuring a bone-chilling rendition of This Little Piggy, accurately represents the overall product but in that way that we wish trailers wouldn’t. In that the action and music are the best parts and all the best moments are pretty much detailed in the trailer.

And speaking of This Little Piggy and the best parts of the film, the closest this film gets to any kind of real unique selling point is a weird recurring motif involving Little Red Riding Hood. Jeffrey would be our approximation of the Big Bad Wolf, something foreshadowed with the subtlety of a slug to the brain thanks to a scene of him literally wearing a wolf mask, for no other reason than it happened to be lying around at the time. If he’s the wolf, then our main group of criminals would collectively be Red Riding Hood, as shown through they literally get painted red thanks to a flare going off in their van (a scene shown in not only the trailer but also the poster). Throughout the film, whenever a major moment is about to happen (namely, the action scenes this film is built on), there will be an ominous red light shown on screen. Now, ignoring the obvious ‘Little Red Riding Hood/Red Hoods’ comparison, this fairy tale take on the traditional cops and robbers story could’ve worked… if, much like the real drama, enough time was given to make it stick. It doesn’t even come across like a Jin-Roh type situation, where the motif is meant to intentionally mislead the audience; instead, all it does is make the audience think that Winslet’s Irina is the Grandmother in this analogue. As if her performance wasn’t unintentionally hilarious enough, the filmmakers added the possibility of Harrelson killing her and dressing up in drag for the rest of the film. Actually, come to think of it, that would be kind of cool.

All in all, while the action scenes are definitely well-executed and there are sprinklings of drama throughout, the weak characterization and overall performances end up bringing down a lot of what works about the film. Hell, the core concept of how important it is when a cop is shot down in the line of duty, given the current political climate, is almost begging for some kind of deeper meaning that is never cashed in on. For those of us who can sit through a film purely for the action’s sake, this might be worth a rental. For the rest of us, I’d advise just seeing Deadpool if you haven’t already. It’s better than How To Be Single, as this has some solid cinematic elements to hold onto and doesn’t come equipped with frankly unlikeable characters. Again, credit where it’s due, the film does an okay attempt at showing truly grey morality across the board. However, in terms of action vs. overall product, Pride And Prejudice And Zombies made for a more complete film that at least made some use of the opportunities it was given.

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