If there is one common thread that ties together much of Australian director John Hillcoat’s work, it is a sense of brooding intensity.
So it seems natural that Hillcoat’s creative path has repeatedly crossed with fellow countryman and friend Nick Cave.
The pair have partnered up for all of Hillcoat’s previous releases – with Cave providing music, screenplays, acting, and combinations thereof – but Triple 9 – a guns blazing cop thriller – marks something of a change of direction for Hillcoat.
There is a noticeable change of setting too, Hillcoat’s previous films took place in near-mythic settings – like the menacing and chaotic prison system in Ghosts… of the Civil Dead, or the desolate post-apocalyptic wasteland of The Road, or the strange blend of Aussie Western that was The Proposition – these were canvases upon which anything could happen.
By contrast, Triple 9 feels firmly rooted in the here and now – and this is definitely not a bad thing.
A criminal squad of crooked cops and ex-military carry out bank-heists at the behest of the Russian bosses who seem to have everybody in their pockets.
When the Russians demand the return of files from a heavily guarded homeland security safe-house, the only option available for the squad is to orchestrate a Triple 9 – the radio code to denote an officer down – to create the necessary window of opportunity.
Loaded with blaring sirens, blazing guns, American flags, Mexican drug dealers, and Russian mobsters, Triple 9 is two hours of unrelenting, story heaped on story action.
Writer Matt Cook has provided a screen play that feels cold-blooded in its content, and serpentine in its form – it is something that stands out in contrast to Hillcoat’s prior films.
And to fill the tanged tale, there is an impressive cast of suitably twisted characters.
Chris (Casey Affleck) takes much of the focus – a greenhorn cop whose dedication to his job causes him to unwittingly become the officer marked to perish in the titular ‘999’.
His uncle Jeffrey (Woody Harrelson) is on board as the detective investigating the heists, who in between consuming the haul of his drugs busts, keeps an eye out for Chris.
Norman Reedus (The Walking Dead) and Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) play the troubled Welch brothers who make up one part of the heist squad, alongside a trio of corrupt cops, Belmont (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr), and Atwood (Anthony Mackie).
Kate Winslet stars as the sinister Russian boss that pulls the strings. And that is just the lay of the land at the outset.
Given that there is arguably no main protagonist, but rather a collection of equally weighted storylines, you can get a sense of some of the scope of Triple 9.
For the most part, Hillcoat uses the array of talent at his disposal expertly.
Though in contrast to his last film, Lawless, which was notable for its developed female characters, Triple 9 seems lacking.
Winslet’s character – an sociopathic, glamourous Russian mobster – is fun to watch but paper thin (and likewise Teresa Palmer, who appears as Chris’ wife).
Break the film down into constituent parts and there is an undeniable finesse in its tense atmosphere, incredible set pieces, and colourful characters.
It is a tremendous amount to fit into two hours, but the relentless attempt to cram as much information as possible can be overwhelming, and towards the end, exhausting.
Triple 9 is a film that hits the ground running and doesn’t stop for breath – which turns out to be both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness.