Cops and robbers is a game that plenty of grown men never outgrow. A lucky few even get to play it with cameras and movie stars. Take John Hillcoat. The Aussie director has spent his career violently colliding two sides of the law, pitting guards against prisoners (Ghosts… Of The Civil Dead), soldiers against desperados (The Proposition), and deputies against bootleggers (Lawless). Hillcoat may switch up the scenery, leaping across oceans and eras, but the conflict—between vicious anarchy and oppressive control—rarely changes. And while it’s possible to extrapolate headier points about human nature from his work, the basic appeal of a Hillcoat joint is not so highfalutin: Those who like watching badasses of all walks point fists or guns at each other will get familiar chills of adolescent glee.
Triple 9, Hillcoat’s new movie, is the biggest game of cops and robbers he’s ever played. His sandbox this time is Atlanta, envisioned less as a city than an enclosed battleground, its buildings providing cover for the hardened men trading gunfire across impoverished avenues and gridlocked expressways. The badass count of this movie is off the charts; the ensemble—sprawling, to put it kindly; unmanageable, to put it honestly—includes bank robbers, gangbangers, mobsters, traumatized soldiers, disgraced police, corrupt police, and that one honest cop caught in the crossfire. They spout tough-guy talk like, “You ever point a gun at me again, you’d be stupid not to use it.” And just about all of them are played by slumming stars and recognizable character actors, though only Woody Harrelson—marble-mouthed as another of his hard-drinking true detectives—treats this material like the pure pulp it clearly is.
Triple 9 is like a David Ayer film on steroids, which is to say it’s like Training Day if most of the characters were as morally compromised as Denzel Washington’s. In the hard-charging opening minutes, masked men knock off a bank and then hit the highway, where they end up sprayed with blood-red dye and spraying bullets into rush-hour traffic. The crew includes no-nonsense Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor, going cold-blooded for the first time in a minute), hyper-competent getaway driver Russel (The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus), Russel’s token-fuckup brother Gabe (Aaron Paul), and two dirty cops, Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Jorge (Clifton Collins Jr.). These freelance criminals just want to get paid, but they’ve made the mistake of doing business with the acting boss of Atlanta’s Russian mob, Irina (Kate Winslet, trying out a terrible accent). And that last job becomes One Last Job, an impossible homeland-security heist that they’d be very unwise to decline.
That’s enough plot and more than enough characters for any two-hour crime drama. But Triple 9 keeps piling on. The film’s title refers to the police code used to designate an officer down; in order to buy themselves enough time to pull the stick-up without contending with the boys in blue, the team schemes to kill a cop, thereby preoccupying all of Atlanta’s finest. Their target: Marcus’ undesired new partner Chris (Casey Affleck), fresh from some easier beat in a cushy district. There’s also Chris’ uncle, Sergeant Detective Allen (Harrelson), who’s on the case of the bank robbery from the opening scene; a tattooed cartel bigwig, Pinto (Luis Da Silva Jr.), who gets wrapped up in the 999 plan; and Irina’s sister Elena (Gal Gadot, our future Wonder Woman), who has a child with Michael—a familial entanglement that Winslet’s merciless kingpin uses to her advantage.
For all its intersecting subplots, Triple 9 fares best when it shifts into pure feet-on-pavement, finger-on-trigger action mode: Besides the first set piece—amplified by the grungy blare of the music, co-composed by frequent Trent Reznor collaborator Atticus Ross—there’s a chaotic, bullets-flying chase that Hillcoat films with some of the same handheld frenzy that Joe Carnahan brought to Narc. Elsewhere, the director ratchets up the suspense, as during a creeping ambush in a pitch-black, shuttered project building. (None too subtly does Triple 9 drench its characters in heavily symbolic shadow, even beginning with a conversation so shrouded in darkness that it’s hard to tell who’s talking.)
Less successful than the heavy-artillery standoffs, however, are the stabs at character development. There’s nothing wrong with denying the audience a rooting interest; Hillcoat, after all, is not the type to divide his players down lines of good and evil, preferring instead to paint them all in shades of brutal gray. Problems arise, however, when you’re so stretched thin as a storyteller that you haven’t the time or space to give anyone depth. Affleck’s (relatively) good cop is default protagonist only by by virtue of his (relatively) clean conscience, not his thinly conceived personality. And his relationship with the partner planning to murder him—as close to a dramatic center as the film finds—never gains much dimension. That the female characters, most of them love interests, barely have dialogue, let alone arcs, is sadly par for the genre-movie course. One misses the less generic scripting of murder-balladeer Nick Cave, who wrote several of Hillcoat’s older, better movies.
Big-canvas crime sagas require, well, big canvases. Watching this one, you end up gaining fresh appreciation for a much longer, superficially similar movie like Heat, which is a blatantly obvious influence: Michael Mann, it becomes clear, had the good sense not to put the squeeze on his epic, using that extra hour of running time to really fill in his archetypal characters. Triple 9 could also work at 10 hours on television—a pointless cameo by Michael K. Williams only encourages unflattering comparisons between its portrait of a poisoned city and a much more complete one. As is, the film’s pleasures are unpretentious but malnourishing: You get to watch some very good actors put on poker faces to play very bad men, letting their prop weapons do most of the performing for them. But as a game of cops and robbers, Triple 9 was probably more fun to play than it is to watch.