Director John Hillcoat's career, until this point, has seen him take on some dark corners of the human condition. The Proposition was a bleak Western set in the outback of his native Australia whilst his adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road deals with a post-apocalyptic society and a father and son attempting to survive.
However, Triple 9 is arguably his most straightforward film to date. A gang of former mercenaries, led by Chiwetel Ejiofor, are indebted to a Russian mobster queen and are forced to take on a seemingly impossible heist. Ejiofor's team, made up of two corrupt police detectives, and two brothers, begin planning the heist. However, in order to give them the exact time they need to complete the job, they need to murder a cop as it will draw the attention away from their intended target. Anthony Mackie, one of the gang members who doubles a police detective, is placed with Casey Affleck and the plan begins to come together. There's no real subtext to it all like Hillcoat's other films, but it's still just as engaging as anything he's done.
Like Heat, the film's action sequences are set around both the planning of the heist and the heist itself. The opening sequence, which sees Norman Reedus directing the gang inside, is brilliantly shot and edited. There's a real sense of pacing to it, something that a film like this needs. Before long, they're screaming down the highway and creating a diversion for themselves by firing at civilian traffic to escape. What's made clear is that Ejiofor's team are complete sociopaths - perfectly able to fire into a crowd of people if it helps them out of a tight spot. Casey Affleck, meanwhile, serves as the moral compass of the film and when placed against his partner, Anthony Mackie, we see just how apparent that is. Kate Winslet's performance as the Russian mobster does veer into scenery-chewing, but it's completely expected. All the gold and hairspray matches her over-the-top performance and it's clear she's having a blast at it.
The supporting cast, for the most part, fill out their roles reasonably well. Woody Harrelson slithers onto the screen as an unhinged detective who's hunting Ejiofor's team. Aaron Paul, as we know, can play damaged well and does so here with aplomb. Norman Reedus, meanwhile, acts as a counterbalance to Paul whilst Clifton Collins, Jr. has that dead-eyed sociopath look down to a tee. Gal Gadot turns up for a few scenes and doesn't have all that much to do with whilst Michael K. Williams has a brief scene as a transgender informant for Harrelson.
The strength of Triple 9 is in its intense action sequences which are cut and edited with such alacrity that it rips you along a breakneck speed. The sound design, Atticus Ross' pounding electronic score and the crazed cinematography really does put you on edge. There isn't anything overly cinematic about the heists themselves, instead it's much more visceral and handheld and the violence is shocking despite its frequency in the film. However, the film loses this frenetic pacing when it goes into the second act, with Mackie's character trying to nail down Casey Affleck as the target. A protracted sequence really does put the brakes on the film, but before long, it's off again with an excellently-staged heist towards the end of the film.
What the film makes clear is that there is no real hero to it; everyone is just as bad as the other. Each and every one of Ejiofor's team are doing it for the money and that's all. Sure, Ejiofor might also be doing it so he can see his child, but it's just as much about the money. Affleck's character almost has a holier-than-thou attitude which, in the context of the film, doesn't sit and we're almost rooting against him as we watch it. To change it all on its head such as this is interesting, to say the least.
Overall, Triple 9 is a rip-roaring heist thriller with some of the best action sequences you're likely to see this year.