In Triple 9's beyond-shadowy opening, a group of reprobates discusses plans for a military-precision bank robbery. The illumination is so dim that a bit of Anthony Mackie's brow is about all that's visible. Subsequent scenes allow a little more light, yet this laughably nihilistic movie just gets darker and darker.
The setting is an Atlanta that's so depraved that it must be director John Hillcoat's attempt to top the near-pornographic grimness of his post-cataclysm The Road. Heavily tattooed Latino gangbangers seem to control much of the city, while a Russian-Israeli crime family hides in plain sight, running a slaughterhouse whose bloody products are shipped in trucks whose signage is in only Russian and Hebrew. Scarlett O'Hara just wouldn't recognize the place.
The front-line criminals are Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Russel (Norman Reedus), former employees of Blackwater, the notorious paramilitary contractor. They're allied with corrupt police detectives Marcus (Mackie) and Jorge (Clifton Collins Jr.) and a callow ex-cop, Gabe (Aaron Paul), who's Russel's brother. The quintet works for the meanest of the Russian-Israelis, Irina (Kate Winslet with her silliest Slavic accent in, uh, months). Her surname is Vlaslov, but it should be Badenov.
The ex-Blackwater guys are entangled by some sort of Middle East connection with Irina's imprisoned husband. Plus, Michael has a young son with Irina's foxy sister (Gal Gadot), one of several decorative beauties in a movie that also includes the feverish strip-club scene that's obligatory in this brand of tough-guy flick.
For reasons that are unclear, Irina wants the guys to steal something or other. You can tell it's important, because it's held in Homeland Security's Atlanta storehouse for super secret stuff, a fortress almost as impregnable as the one where Coca-Cola keeps its recipe. The caper seems impossible, but the thugs have an idea. They'll shoot a cop, which will distract the whole Atlanta PD. The code for a downed officer? 999.
Marcus has just the patsy: his new partner, Chris (Casey Affleck). Chris is apparently one of the city's few upright officers, which doesn't seem to have made him many friends on the force. He does have one champion, his uncle Jeff (Woody Harrelson), a police detective who's also a righteous man — aside from being a drug addict.
The audience may sympathize with Marcus' choice. Although Chris is the center of the story, he does verge on the superfluous. Played by Affleck in a more naturalistic mode than his amusingly retro turn in the recent The Finest Hours, the good cop is kind of a bore. The potential menace to Chris doesn't propel the action.
Neither does the convoluted plot, devised by scripter Matt Cook under the apparent influence of Michael Mann and Quentin Tarantino. Instead, Hillcoat relies on clipped editing, prowling cameras and an electro-throb score composed by a team that includes Atticus Ross.
These elements don't bolster the movie's coherence, but then the action is barely visible anyway. Cops prowl darkened mazes, looking for perps they probably couldn't see even if they found them. In one sequence, Chris and Marcus are outfitted with flashlights, gear that's likely to make viewers jealous.
Dialogue is also scant, although Harrelson is provided a few good jibes. The philosophical speeches, though, go to Irina, who solemnly intones, "Life makes great demands of us all." Yes, but some trials, such as sitting through Triple 9, are easily avoided.