The film begins with the first of several heart pounding action sequences. Unshaven tough guys— ex-special forces agents Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Russell (“The Walking Dead’s” Norman Reedus) along with Russell’s ex-cop brother Gabe (Aaron Paul), and a pair of dirty cops Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Jorge (Clifton Collins Jr.)—use their connections and tactical training to pull off a brazen hold up Atlanta’s First City Bank and steal the safety deposit box of a wealthy Russian gangster.
It’s a special ordered by the elaborately coiffured Israeli mob boss Irina (Kate Winslet) who then demands the men do another job before any money changes hands. The second heist involves breaking into an unmarked homeland security building and stealing the computer files that contain the key to getting Irina’s husband out of jail. It’s dangerous, time sensitive—“The house is burning and the clock is ticking,” she says.—and damn near impossible. Completing the task calls for strong measures. The baddies decide to stage a triple 9, cop slang for a fallen constable, in the hopes that an “officer down” call will attract every police officer in Atlanta, leaving them free to do as they please across town. Their intended victim is a new by-the-book officer Chris Allen (Casey Affleck) but matters of family ties, loyalty and even a hint of ethics complicate matters.
“Triple 9” is perfect for those who like their cop stories tinged with nihilism. Cut from the same stained cloth as “Training Day” and “Street Kings,” it’s a down-and-dirty story where severed heads are a plot point, a lead detective smokes more dope than the people he’s arresting (and he’s one of the good guys) and tough guys say creepily poetic things like, “It’s quiet as a mother’s prayer.” The scent of testosterone hangs heavy in the air but director John Hillcoat embraces the dirty cop clichés but allows the actors to wallow in the filth in interesting of ways. Woody Harrelson’s sleazy-but-righteous cop is a ton of fun, the Collins Jr.’s Jorge is sheer b-movie evil and Winslet’s Irina is a villain ripped out of the pages of a pulp fiction novel.
We’ve seen it all before, and frankly, seen it better before, so while Hillcoat doesn’t reinvent the wheel he does point the wheel to a menacing underworld and doesn’t take his foot off the gas till me gets there.