Triple 9

Year: 2016
Production Co: Worldview Entertainment
Director: John Hillcoat
Writer: Matt Cook
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Casey Affleck, Norman Reedus, Anthony Mackie, Clifton Collins Jr, Woody Harrelson, Aaron Paul, Kate Winsley, Teresa Palmer, Gal Gadot, Michael K Williams

You'd think crime thrillers about tough-edged, cynical, disaffected cops in a grimy urban setting had been done to death thanks to the films of David Ayer, Michael Mann and many others, but along comes Aussie John Hillcoat to give the genre the most vibrant shot in the arm it's seen in years.

The knotty, well written story ensures what a lot of writers and directors give lip service to but rarely truly achieve – characters full of moral grey areas. The protagonists aren't exactly hard to spot, but the film certainly takes its time teasing them out of the story and a cast of characters where everyone's some sort of bad guy – some more than others. With everyone getting their moment and the audience never sure just how bad they are, it's a true ensemble.

Former soldier Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor), his scruffy buddy Russell (Norman Reedus), Russell's even scruffier skittish younger brother Gabe (Aaron Paul) and two dirty cops, Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Franco (Clifton Collins Jr) rob banks for a living, as we see in the blistering opening robbery sequence and escape chase.

It's meant to be the one to set them up for life, but they're too deep in the pockets of a local Jewish Russian mobster family run by Irina (Kate Winslet, so made up I didn't recognise her at first) as the pristine but ferocious family matriarch while the family Don is banged up.

It doesn't help that Michael has an infant son with Irina's flaky, party girl younger sister Elena (Gal Gadot), bonding him forever to Irina's family by blood, but when they deliver the goods from the bank job, she welches, telling them there'll be no payment until they pull one more job. And it's a doozy, breaking into a locked-down Homeland Security facility to swipe sensitive documents to spring the incarcerated capo.

The Russians convince the boys to take part in their inimitable style, by leaving Russell mortally wounded in his car for them to find, with just enough life left in him to warn him about their bloodthirsty partners. With targets on all their backs, powerful potential enemies and access to his son held to ransom, Michael has to convince the rest of the crew to go along.

The plan they settle on is the Atlanta police radio code of the title, the designation for 'officer down' – a call that will bring the entirety of the city's police force running to avenge/protect one of their own... and leave the Homeland facility vulnerable.

The only thing left is to pick a victim, and pretty soon Marcus thinks he's found it in his new partner Chris (Casey Affleck), who they all assume is a clueless newbie after being a soldier in Iraq and transferring in from a far less dangerous precinct. Like generations of tough-talking cops before him, Marcus doesn't want to be saddled with some wet-behind-the-ears new guy but he's given no choice. Coincidentally, Chris happens to be the nephew of the grizzled detective Jeffrey (Woody Harrelson) who's working the robbery investigation and has a lead in the lowlife Gabe.

The plan seems set, but while trying to contain a siege in a local gangland projects that bristles with tension and violence, Chris saves Marcus' life and the latter has second thoughts. But Michael won't be swayed, the plan is in motion and the explosives hit the fan.

I was floored by the so-so response to this movie by critics. As a cop thriller the story is multi-faceted and lively, expertly juggling a large cast and giving every character their moment. The actors playing those characters are uniformly excellent, from the sublime Casey Affleck on down.

Mackie proves he has real chops while he's away from Marvel CGI wingsuits, Reedus isn't a million miles from The Walking Dead's Daryl Dixon but he does it so well. Harrelson is drawing on a hundred other archetypes he's played before but can do it blondfolded, Collins is as tough as he is scary and Ejiofor is appropriately desperate.

Aaron Paul is a bit wobbly but he always has been and like Mackie, it's the most interesting work Gal Gadot has done in years after being the furrow-browed supermodel of the Fast and Furious and DC superhero movies.

But the real star is Hillcoat's direction. He talked in an interview about the 'messiness' of how action scenes would play out in real life and he executes it beautifully here with as much realism as thrills – one possibly feeding into the other.

Cops and robbers is a longtime perennial of cinema, but most films in the genre only remind you of how hard it is to do something new. Triple 9 has a rollicking good story with searing real world-inspired action, and blends them beautifully.

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