The Australian-born director John Hillcoat favors extreme environments and characters under unbelievable duress. After directing music videos for years, he stunned Toronto festival audiences with his 2005 debut feature, “The Proposition,” an Australian “Western” that featured unforgiving savagery.
His next two films, the bleak and apocalyptic “The Road” (2010) and backwoods gangster mayhem “Lawless” (2012), have only furthered his reputation for tales of men under pressure whose wits and steely determination are their only resources. After their guns, of course.
“Triple 9” may take these demoralizing portraits of humanity about as far as they can go for Hillcoat. Not that the violence is any worse but his depiction of a grim urban landscape of dirty cops, corrupt ex-special forces ops, ruthless mobsters and vicious gang members allows for no moral high ground.
And not much empathy from audiences either so there’s a very real question whether you will give a damn about anyone here.
For nuisance, some cops are “troubled” rather than “corrupt” and maybe the Russian-Israeli mob queen shows dangerous sentimentality for leaving a thief alive when she could just as easily kill him.
But forget protagonists and antagonists. When someone does get killed, your only impulse is to shrug: one less character to keep track of.
Which brings up another point. Keeping track of subplots and characters is nigh impossible since story comes at you in confusing chucks, usually without backstories or motives, and in dialogue so swallowed, mumbled or bathed in accents — one actor delivers a line as he munches food — that the damn thing needs subtitles.
The force of the movie impels you through some amazing action set pieces and striking confrontations so you catch the drift even as you puzzle over the particulars. But whatever happened to coherence in cinema? Is it a crime for an audience to understand storylines?
Certainly the movie begins in a rush with a daylight bank heist, a getaway where a red dye-pack in the stolen cash explodes in a vehicle on the freeway, cars swerving all over the place, a carjacking and a guy on the hood of a BMW firing at people and cops desperately trying to reach the scenes of several crimes to sort out the chaos.
You soon gather the robbers are actually a team of Atlanta cops and ex-Special Forces soldiers who are aligned with a Russian-Israeli mob although how these two disparate groups hooked up is anybody’s guess.
One guess might be that the crew head, ex-op Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor), has a small son with the hot-stuff sister (Israeli actress Gal Gadot) of lady mob boss Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet). But that’s just a guess.
Another and different connection: rookie straight-arrow cop Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), who joins the force’s gang task force, happens to be the nephew of detective sergeant Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson), who must solve the bank robbery carried out, unbeknownst to him, by many of his own colleagues.
This crime, spectacular as it is, isn’t enough for the ice-cold Irina; she demands the crew do yet another job for their money and, again for some unknown reason, has the juice and leverage to get her way.
The only way to pull off such an equally implausible job is to institute a “999” call, meaning “officer down,” which will occupy the entire Atlanta police force.
Gang-unit officer Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie) thinks this might work but he must figure out which of his men is going down even as he deals with his mostly out-of-control colleagues (Aaron Paul, Clifton Collins Jr. and Norman Reedus).
The many confrontations between cops and heavily tattooed gang-bangers, assassinations by apparent Mexican gangsters, a SWAT raid on a ghetto housing project to nab the possible killer, internecine fights among the heist crew and the detective’s lonely quest to solve the mystery all seem like so much filler marking time before that “999” call.
The call does finally come and more incredible chaos ensues, but you feel like you’ve been led down many a mean street merely to smell the corruption and contempt for human life lingering in the air. Did half these subplots, not all of which are fully comprehensible, even need to exist?
One problem here is that Hillcoat, working from a script by Matt Cook, blends together the heist thriller, cop procedural and mobster movie all within a soul-crushing darkness that wants to make film noir look like screwball comedy.
The movie is too self-aware. It waves its cynicism and brutality as badges of honor without realizing that sometime nihilism can overreach into comic pomposity.
I’m certainly not saying “Triple 9” is a laff riot. What I am saying is you may find yourself wanting to laugh. You certainly have no other emotional investment in this movie.
Opens: February 26, 2016 (Open Road Films) Production companies: Anonymous Content, MadRiver Pictures
Cast: Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Clifton Collins Jr., Norman Reedus, Teresa Palmer, Michael K. Williams, Gal Gadot, Woody Harrelson, Kate Winslet
Director: John Hillcoat
Screenwriter: Matt Cook
Producers: Keith Redmon, Brad Dorros, Marc Butan, Anthony Katagas, Christopher Woodrow, John Hillcoat
Executive producers: Steve Golin, Paul Green, Tom Ortenberg, Peter Lawson, Molly Conners, Maria Cestone, Sarah E. Johnson, Kimberly Fox, Isabel Dos Santos
Director of photography: Nicolas Karakatsanis
Production designer: Tim Grimes
Music: Atticus Ross, Claudia Sarne, Leopold Ross, Bobby Krlic
Costume designer: Margot Wilson
Editor: Dylan Tichenor
R rating, 115 minutes