Past the Popcorn: Who Do You Root For in Dark Heist Film Triple 9?

by Jeff Walls

It features a star-studded cast that includes Casey Affleck, involves a heist, and has a number in the title, but by no means should you walk into Triple 9 expecting another Ocean’s Eleven.  Whereas Ocean’s was light and breezy, Triple 9 is about as dark and gritty as movies come.  There are few—if any—characters worth rooting for in this drama, but the action scenes do make it worth a look.

The movie opens with a Heat-like bank robbery sequence pulled off by men who are obviously ex-military and some of whom are soon revealed to be corrupt cops.  They pull the job at the behest of the Russian mob.  The mob’s boss is currently serving a prison term, so his wife Irina is currently running the organization with vicious efficiency.  Michael, the leader of the crew who pulled off the bank heist, once knocked up Irina’s sister and now finds himself under her thumb as she has control of his young son.  Because of this, he has little say when she refuses to give his team their cut of the score from the bank heist until they pull off one more job: stealing some key information for freeing her husband that is being held at a secure Homeland Security facility.

triple-9-insetMichael and his crew know that the DHS facility is heavily guarded and will be crawling with cops as soon as they walk in.  Needing a distraction that could free them up for a few minutes, they decide to create the “triple nine” of the title.  Triple nine is code meaning that there is an officer down.  They know that if a triple nine is called across town that the entire police force will race there to aid their fallen comrade, thus giving them a few more police-free minutes to break into the DHS facility.  The officers in the crew have gotten so corrupt that they hardly blink an eye at the idea of shooting down one of their own.  Chris Allen is a recent transfer, who has already had a confrontation with one of their crew, as well as a local thug, making him the perfect target.

The movie is bookended by the bank heist and the DHS job, both of which are very impressively pulled off, but Triple 9’s most incredible action scene is the raid of a housing project in the middle of the movie.  Pursuing an armed drug dealer, Casey Affleck’s Chris Allen leads the raid into the building with a riot shield while the other officers crouch down behind him for protection.  As they move from room to room, Allen calls out the areas that need to be checked (closet, under the bed, bathroom, etc.) and the officers peel off to investigate, before announcing that it is clear and resuming their position behind the riot shield.  I don’t remember seeing another action scene quite like it.  It is slower than most modern action scenes, but a hundred times more intense and involving, at least until culminating in a more typical chase sequence.

It is during the movie’s action scenes where I felt the most involved in the movie, as when the action settled, I found myself looking hopelessly for any character to root for.  The obvious choice is Affleck’s character, but even though he is the movie’s main good guy, his character is kind of bland and not all that interesting.  Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Michael and the movie seems to encourage us to root for him, suggesting that he was basically forced into a life of crime to keep his son safe, but he performs one of the movie’s cruelest and most disturbing acts, which undercuts any goodwill his situation has earned him.

Perhaps the easiest guy to like in the movie is Woody Harrleson’s Jeffrey Allen, an unconventional detective whose only vices appear to be his excessive smoking and drinking.  Harrelson’s off-kilter performance felt very Nicolas Cage-esque and made me hopeful that one day those two actors will find a movie to do together.

It definitely is a dark movie with troubling themes and difficult characters, but even though it is difficult to find any redeeming values in any of the characters, the actors involved sure give it their best. The action scenes feel fresh, intense, and exciting, making this a worthwhile trip to the theater for action and crime movie fans.

Triple 9 opens today at the Regal Parkway Plaza 12, the AMC Century Federal Way, and AMC Kent Station 14. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? Until then, eat local before you go!

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