A claustrophobic car interior in the dead of night provides the introductory setting of John Hillcoat’s Triple 9, and consider the imagery fair warning: as the image adjusts along with your eyes, you may rightly come to expect that the red glow of taillights is the barely sparing “neo” to this pitch-black “noir,” a dark crime drama the rough-and-tumble Samuel Fuller no doubt would have loved.
Australian-born director Hillcoat has established himself with outlaw stories and, shall we say, alternative Westerns, pictures like The Proposition, The Road, and Lawless. So he’s a good match for Matt Cook’s tough-minded screenplay about cops and gangs sparring in an urban war zone. These ignorant armies clash by night, at times unable to distinguish friend from foe. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays an ex-Blackwater operative under the duress of the Russian mob (represented by a nearly unrecognizable Kate Winslet’s Irina). Michael has culled his team of the blackmailed and the desperate from Special Forces work (Norman Reedus’ Russel) and an Atlanta P.D. gang unit (Anthony Mackie’s Marcus, Clifton Collins Jr.’s Jorge and, as cop-shop washout Gabe, Aaron Paul).
Once we’ve met Marcus’ on-the-level new partner Chris and his alcoholic uncle (and sergeant-detective) Jeffrey (Woody Harrelson), the boards are set for a three-dimensional chess match, cops-and-robbers-style. Hillcoat conjures a high-stress world with a dearth of fresh air. The opening title sequence pointedly contrasts Russian-mafia trappings, like boats and skyscrapers, to the depressed housing of the predominantly African-American gangs that Marcus, Chris, and Jorge police while Irina and company, above it all and with relative ease, turn the screws to protect their own interests.
Despite the milieu, Triple 9 doesn’t aspire to be anything more than an intriguing story, well told. It’s fairly forgettable once it’s in the rear view, but while you’re in it, Triple 9 certainly commands interest, with its sprawling cast of name players (also, a chance to familiarize yourself with soon-to-be Wonder Woman Gal Gadot, as Winslet’s sister), consistently crackling tension, and hold-your-breath action sequences. Harrelson gives a particularly strong performance as the mercurial (and oft-amusing) seen-it-all cop who counsels his nephew to “out-monster the monster” if he intends to live to tell about it.
Cook’s hard-boiled dialogue may trade in religious imagery (“Quiet as a mother’s prayer”), but it’s decidedly ungodly. Irina tells Michael, “You and I, we pray to the same altar,” and whether she means money or a cause of ruthless self-preservation matters little. After all, what’s the difference in this desperate land, where nobody hears an answer?
Universal Home Video may not pack on the extras for its Blu-ray + Digital HD release of Triple 9, but the disc does offer admirable A/V for an overall-satisfying hi-def home-viewing experience. Hillcoat's film, true to form, errs on the side of grotty: this is not the kind of HD transfer that sparkles with digital sheen, and it's the better for it. Mostly favoring subtly muted color (all truly rendered to the filmmakers' intent), the picture excels best in the areas of texture and detail, with the suggestion of film grain, but nothing that could be called an intrusive digital artifact. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5. 1 mix packs LFE punch in the many shootout scenes, and rattles through use of the rear channels as the action seems to surround the listener. The ambient score (by Atticus Ross) and ambient sound effects, in their own ways, help to place the listener in the world of the film, emotionally and viscerally. Happily, dialogue never gets lost in the mix.
Spoilers follow in the listing of deleted scenes in the special features, so proceed with caution. The disc's extras include the Deleted Scenes "Michael's First Kill" (2:07, HD), "Jeffrey Quits" (1:19, HD), "Jeffrey Finds Out About Leah" (1:11, HD), and "Michael's Death" (3:19, HD) and the blink-and-you'll-miss-'em promo featurettes "Under the Gun" (2:43, HD) and "An Authentic World" (2:41, HD).
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