At first glance, "Triple 9" has everything going for it as a made to order cops and crooks morality to morass type of tale. The cast is bananas, starting with no less than Chiwetel Ejiofor, Casey Affleck, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus, Woody Harrelson and Kate Winslet rounding things out in a close to unrecognizable star turn as a pragmatic but ice cold Russian Mafia maven. Australian director John Hillcoat also has a solid resume when it comes to genre with "The Proposition", "The Road" and "Lawless", starring respectively no less than Guy Pierce, Viggo Mortensen and Tom Hardy as part of his directing oeuvre. However, for a reason that would seem to lie in the writing, the devil in the details, or that ineffable something that you just can’t put your finger on, "Triple 9" while possessed of great performances just never gels like it should so we feel true pathos for the poor characters involved. For whatever reason, some part of the recipe is missing. As such, the whole result just leaves you with a sour taste in your mouth, feeling something like regret for the time invested on something that you were really hoping to savor as things looked so promising at the beginning.
There is no question that the performances in "Triple 9" are good and fitting to the rules of the action thriller. In that school of thought that posits that all excellent cops are only a few steps away from becoming the excellent criminals that they are trying to thwart and vice versa, all of the major characters are given a great start in the way of written props suggesting that they are more than the sum of their inherent goodness or badness. Kate Winslet is a welcome shock as a hardened Russian Jew who is both crime syndicate matriarch and loving aunt to her biracial nephew, even as she leverages him relentlessly for a perceived greater familial good. Norman Reedus shows a real propensity for his job even as he shows very convincing humanity in his fleeting regret for innocents that unwittingly fall in the way of the potentially deadly business he conducts as a means of gainful employment. However, as the movie sinks deeper and deeper into it’s examination of the cesspool that it has set up at the outset, something catches in the mix, and despite all of the great acting, the story itself seems to stall out with regards to being a fresh take on the genre. Too many emotional beats get stuck in scenes that we have seen before, such as the frustrated veteran cop who gets drunk, and starts waving his gun around in a bar, only to be calmed by his protégé, or another familiar set up, when the unwanted “source” appears at the dive cop bar, only to be roughed up and beaten up outside. Given the caliber of all of the players involved in "Triple 9", it would seem that they could do better to get us to care about these well-crafted characters that are suddenly being abandoned in scenes that could be better and more original.
As for standout performances amongst a cast of standouts, Casey Affleck truly becomes the detective that he has been tasked with fleshing out. With Woody Harrelson’s character, you can almost feel the grime in every step that he takes, and Chiwetel Ejiofor is riveting as a hard man dictated by hard times.
With regards to what might have made "Triple 9" all that it set out to be, seeing as no one can be said to be clean, it would have been a service to see more with regards to the unique spots of sunlight all of these characters guard from the soul crushing darkness accepted as a means of gainful employment. Short of that, if you are a suspense and violence junkie, the movie does hold up its end of the bargain in delivering on that score. However, if you are looking for something enduringly meaningful or deeply affecting in the middle of all of that carnage, this is not your Saturday night special.