In a time when sequels and reboots dominate the cinematic stage, it’s always exciting when a new intellectual property takes its time in the spotlight, particularly if it seems to be backed by an immense amount of talent. Triple 9 started out as a spec script, screenwriter Matt Cook’s dream of making it in his chosen profession, and the fact that the film finally got made would normally be a testament to at least some innate quality in the work presented. Unfortunately, that very script, the piece of the puzzle that caused all others to shift into place, is so fundamentally flawed and riddled with cliché that it drags the entire production down with it.
The premise actually seemed to carry some promise, with four bank robbers, two of whom are corrupt cops, being blackmailed by the Russian mafia into performing a seemingly impossible heist. In order to buy themselves time, the crooks contrive to set-up a triple-nine police scenario, an officer shot far enough away from the scene of the heist that the police would be too distracted to provide any real resistance to the group’s escape. The bait? A corrupt cop’s new rookie partner.
Despite an actually engaging opening heist sequence, the film's first big mistake is to make little to no effort in establishing its characters beyond the most basic of archetypes, if it can even be said to have bothered with that minimal step. A fantastic cast, including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus, and Kate Winslet, turns in some adequate performances, but are ultimately held back by dull dialogue that doesn’t give any of their characters room to breathe or interact in ways that aren’t plot critical. I couldn’t tell you any character’s name or relation to the other characters beyond the vaguest of memories I have from a few throwaway lines that only barely establish who our protagonists even are.
The other thing working against this story is that it is hopelessly and needlessly complicated by subplots that grind the second act to a halt. These include an extended shootout between the police and a minor drug-runner who doesn’t relate to the main Russian mob plot in the slightest, a member of the heist gang cracking under pressure, a quirky detective trying to make sense of seemingly unrelated events (Woody Harrelson doing his best to be this film’s Willem Dafoe surrogate), and a relationship of one heister with his young son. There are too many pieces moving at any given time, and most of it is unnecessary given that these subplots mainly serve to either eliminate superfluous characters or set-up the climax in overcomplicated ways. It got so bad that I didn’t even realize the third act had started until already neck deep in it, which says something of how little care was put into guiding the audience through the labyrinthine passages of the narrative.
This doesn’t even address the fact that every single person of color in the film is either a criminal or inept, including the police officers, and the two heroes of the story are white men coded to the audience as good guys by literally wearing an American flag and a crucifix. I was hoping that a contemporary film dealing with police corruption would not be quite so tone deaf, but perhaps that was one hope too many. Even absent that glaring textual blemish, Triple 9 is an absolute mess of underdeveloped characters and overcomplicated nonsense. Don’t bother with Triple 9. It's a shambling corpse whose screenplay should have been announced dead on arrival.