Friday, February 26, 2016

The More Jobs We Do with These Guys the More They Squeeze Us

2 of the most enduring sub-genres of crime: cop drama and heist thriller.


Cold open. Inside a car MICHAEL BELMONT (Chiwetel Ejiofor) discusses some details about the next heist he and his team will hit. A foreshadowing occurs in this first shot. Tight, dark, and with barely any information on the screen, it gives the feeling of being lost and afraid or at least of being somewhere you shouldn't be. It's not movie-lighting dark, it's is something wrong with the screen dark.

Michael's talking with brothers RUSSELL WELCH (Norman Reedus) and GABE WELCH (Aaron Paul). They'll need 2 more for the job: MARCUS (Anthony Mackie) and FRANCO (Clifton Collins, Jr.). There's a collective apprehension about doing another job with Russian mafia gangster IRINA (Kate Winslet).

Then the opening credits.

Triple 9 (2016, John Hillcoat) understands how to focus on the dangerous atmosphere of its group of 5 bank robbers, and it seems to play out so well because it just sticks to the facts. There are never any distractions from the plot. And Triple 9 is all about plot. Although the action sequences give the film its character. Before the opening credits have finished, the crew has already geared up for their job. The opening First City Bank 3rd & Peachtree bank robbery with the exploding red dye packs brings a lot of energy with it, and there's momentum to back it up. Crime thriller. The movie hits the bullseye, I'm telling you. The way it works within the genre, it's never misguided.

The ensemble cast is terrific. The best part about the cast is that they're featured just enough to become tapestry, and then attention is always on to something else. To cut to the chase, everyone except Marcus' partner CHRIS ALLEN (Casey Affleck) is corrupt and none of them are likeable except Chris and Michael. So Triple 9 sets up Atlanta, GA as a crime-ridden ghetto warzone between the police, Russian mob, and Mara Salvatrucha 13 Mexican street gang.

Michael is almost too likeable. He worked for Blackwater in Iraq years ago where he met Russell and they worked special ops. He was married to and had a child together with a gorgeous hot model Russian woman, ELENA (Gail Gadot) who's sister is Irina. He's the leader of the crew. He's the badass and the smart one. And his only care is his son, whom he shares joint custody of with Elena.

Marcus is Anthony Mackie at his most loathsome. Smoking Black & Milds, driving with his pistol on his lap, and full of nothing but hate and a short temper, his every action feels calculated to make us hate this cop. Same with Franco. But that's another thing that gives the movie its modern edge. We sympathize more for Chris because of what he's up against all around him; and it's his own partner who he need fear most.

Like I said, the rest of the characters are scumbags and lowlifes. But, my favorite actor himself Woody Harrelson as DET. JEFF ALLEN, uncle to Chris Allen, is one of the strongest supporting roles in Triple 9. Jeff smokes joints like some cops smoke cigarettes, lives alone in a living room strewn with empty bottles and trash, and is consumed by his profession. He heads the special crimes division and fights what he calls "the demon." Hell no does he look like he has any business being a cop, he's psycho. But Triple 9 lacks the traditional moral boundaries, and Jeff comes off as the good guy, having adjusted to the responsibilities of being a cop the only way he knows how with what he's up against. The scene at the bar when he's wasted and slurs the provocation: "hey any of you motherfuckers strapped right now?" lets us know what he's about. He's not good anymore, but one time he was. Maybe I like Jeff because I know the Hank Quinlan in him.

I can't believe I can still say this, but Triple 9 is realistic. It rushes through the tense days desperate to see out the final outcome of the high stakes involved, yet doesn't shift into overly melodramatic, political, or character development timesucks like this genre has often suffered from. And the tone always feels like impending doom (the wall to wall low atonal metallic electronic drone score is great), like everything's going to go wrong, but through most of the movie we're watching how expertly proficient the cops and the robbers perform their missions. And it's fresh.

Another of the big set pieces, the projects raid is the obligatory shootout, but god it's so good. That leads to the Homeland Security Holding heist following immediately after. Also what's that they use in the heists, a taser cannon? That's awesome. All the action sequences feel like someone really knows what they're doing, giving them the attention and skill to make them good. Another great chase in itself is Jeff's speeding pursuit through traffic to the 999.

Again Triple 9 is really about Det. Jeffrey Allen. At the end, with some flecks of blood splatter on his face, that last shot, when the camera freezes on him and then slowly zooms in for a few seconds, I ask myself: why was he in that cop car instead of calling it in? I don't know, but it stays with me. That's some Hank Quinlan.

--Dregs

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