“Triple 9” is no routine crime film. It has a meticulous, Swiss watch of a script, written by newcomer Matt Cook; and it’s directed by John Hillcoat (“Lawless,” “The Proposition”), whose films are soulful, serious and marked by strong performances. Hillcoat is drawn to stories involving grim challenges and awful choices, and he gets to grapple with both in “Triple 9.”
There are about six starring roles, and no one gets lost. Except for Casey Affleck, everyone plays a distinct and different variation of bad. There’s confident, cold-blooded evil, but with reasons (Kate Winslet). There’s indecisive, guilt-ridden, soul-destroyed, pathetic bad — who better to play that than Aaron Paul? There’s Anthony Mackie as bad (but not as bad as he thinks) and Chiwetel Ejiofor as driven-to-desperation bad.
There’s also Woody Harrelson, as a dedicated cop with bad personal habits, who gets drunk and waves his gun around in bars and, at one point, gets stoned in the back of a car with a woman he has just arrested. It’s a measure of the film’s good casting that it’s easy to imagine Harrelson making sense of such a character, but who else could do it?
Of course, the Russian mafia is involved in “Triple 9,” the words “Russian mafia” being the movie’s current way of saying “as bad as it gets.” Apparently, there is a mafia leader in an American prison, and we only know one thing about him: Putin is scared of him. That might be the quickest shorthand for announcing someone is tough that I’ve ever heard. His wife, Irina (Winslet), is trying to win his release, but to do that she needs leverage. She needs to steal top secret information from the United States that she can use to blackmail the government.
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the leader of a squad of criminals somehow in debt to the Russian mob. As a result, he has to do whatever Irina says, or…well, basically, he just has to do whatever Irina says. He has no other option. And so he must devise a massive plan to steal federal secrets from the government.
The title “Triple 9” refers to the code that police use when an officer has been wounded. According to the film, whenever a “999” goes out on the police radio, all the police cars in the city converge on a single area — thus buying time for anyone who wants to pull off a major job on the other side of town. You can see how such a fact might capture the imagination of an amoral band of criminals.
With every other actor in “Triple 9” trying on a new variety of evil, you might think Casey Affleck would be at a disadvantage here. But as is often the case, Affleck’s mental radio is tuned to a station only he hears, and he arrests our attention. I wonder if any screen actor has ever seemed so focused and so distracted at the same time. He thinks more than he says, and so we listen, trying to get the part he’s leaving out.
“Triple 9” is terrific melodrama, but it’s melodrama all the same, and shameless. A crook is shown playing with his kid before leaving to do a job, and a scene or two later, Irina is shown reading a bedtime story to yet another child. Yes, these people are awful, the idea seems to be, and yet they care about their families. (That’s not news. The Corleones were a pretty tight family, too.) “Triple 9” doesn’t exactly transcend its genre, but it definitely exploits it for all it’s worth.
Rated: R for strong violence and language throughout, drug use, some nudity. Starring: Aaron Paul, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Casey Affleck and Kate Winslet. Director: John Hillcoat. Running time: 115 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21, Edwards 9, Edwards 14, Edwards 12, Majestic 18, Village Cinema.