The ensemble heist thriller is a funny beast of a movie to make. Ensemble films in general are challenging for a director, one must balance a variety of personalities, all skilled, through a movie that usually does not have enough runtime to feature each actor significantly. Combine that with the twists and turns, constant suspense, riveting dialogue that must accompany the classic heist thriller and you have quite the order on your hands. John Hillcoat’s Triple 9 struggles with this complex series of challenges his own film sets up for him, resulting in a film experience that ultimately may not be great, but is certainly a serviceable representation of a genre that is horribly underrepresented.
The history of the genre itself is fascinating: perhaps the penultimate example of an ensemble heist film is Michael Mann’s 1995 nearly three hour crime epic Heat. This took two of the biggest actors at the time (DeNiro and Pacino) and set them head to head in a violent, intrigue-filled marathon while surrounding them with an extremely competent supporting cast. Towards the end of the nineties, the heist film continued to be shockingly violent but tinged with humor through Guy Ritchie films such as Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. The new millennium brought a concentration on humor to the genre with the Ocean’s series of movies, and this was turned into a full on reversal of genre tone by the time the last popular heist movie (Tower Heist) was released; a once violent and gritty film category has been hijacked by comedian ensembles and wacky hijinks.
That is where the true promise of Triple 9 comes in: its ability to portray a serious, violent crime thriller in a manner more akin to the late eighties/early nineties vision of the genre. Unrelentingly stylistic with a dark tonality punctuated by moments of extreme and sudden violence define the most compelling parts of the movie. The spray of gunfire isn’t at a Bay-esque constant drone, but rather a staccato of ferocity that masterfully brings the movie out of its periods of long darkness and introspection into the action it so easily provides. The violence serves a purpose too, thematically it accentuates the chaotic environment these characters are thrust into, and neither the character nor the viewer knows when or where the next shots are coming.
And let’s talk about the characters, at once one of the most notable triumphs of this film while also one of its confusing failures. The casting is absurdly well done, and maybe more than not, representative of a new wave of popular actors in Hollywood. The cast is packed full of names, but there were only a few roles that truly excelled. Not at the fault of the excellent cast mind you, but rather indicative of the effect a short run time had on character development. Two standouts were Aaron Paul as “Gabe” and Kate Winslet as “Irina”, both of these actors took relatively minor roles where either had an excuse to play the role as merely a vehicle for plot progression. However, Paul adds a notion of sadness and regret to his character that isn’t really seen elsewhere throughout the movie. Gabe is the only character with a real sense of development throughout the film, and Paul’s approach to that really made his role an admirable performance. Kate Winslet is shocking purely in the fact that this isn’t a character one would usually associate with her. Irina is a cold, calculating bad guy with interesting motivations, a sort of Bond villain that wandered into a heist film. Rather than jarring, this performance actually complements the chaotic nature of the other characters quite well.
Unfortunately, the casting is also what drags the movie down, as so many characters played by so many powerful actors in a film with limited run time creates a clog of personalities that serves only to confuse character development. Despite being an ensemble film, the two leads could be seen as Casey Affleck and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Both of their characters had real relationships that were portrayed in a satisfying enough manner, except, both characters are plagued by near zero character development. Their motivations, approaches, reactions are constant throughout the film. These characters are who they are, unforgivingly, and don’t aspire to change despite a yearning desire on the part of the audience to see something learned, or a thematic gleaned, something that would provide substance to the purely stylistic approach this movie seems to offer.
This lack of character progression combined with an excess of stylistic imagery is what ultimately leads to the other characters fading into the background. Heat had a runtime of 170 minutes, maybe excessive, but this allowed all of the characters involved to bloom into something special. At a comparatively paltry 115 minutes, Triple 9 simply doesn’t have enough breadth to offer all of its key players enough time to carve out a niche for themselves. Everyone involved in this production is clearly skilled at what they do, it just seems the structure they were given to do it in might not have been appropriate for what a good ensemble heist film needs.
However, the really exciting idea that this movie provides is “what could be”. As stated before, the heist film has gone from its brutal rebirth in the nineties to a family-friendly matinee comedy, and perhaps this is the film to bring it back to the effervescent brutality that made it such a heralded format. While the construction of this movie isn’t perfect, it provides what is needed for a successful ensemble heist movie, from the great casting to the stylistic dialogue sequences to the stop-start intense moments of action, this movie is enjoyable. Enjoyable, and perhaps most importantly, a move towards the kind of adult-oriented entertainment the movie industry desperately needs.
[easyreview title= "Review of Triple 9" cat1title="Bart's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="3.5" overall= false]