Crooked-cop heist thriller Triple 9 isn’t quite sure where its allegiances lie, says MacDara Conroy

The crooked-cop thriller has been done before, many times: Infernal Affairs, 16 Blocks, End of Watch, the remake of Assault on Precinct 13 are just a few that spring to mind, all variations on the same basic plot. From a Black List script by Matt Cook, John Hillcoat’s Triple 9 squares up as a fresh approach to the concept, one as well turned out as it is dripping in the filth of moral ambiguity. But it’s also one that isn’t quite sure where its allegiances lie.

You’ve got the ostensible heels of the piece, comprising the bulk of the ensemble cast you’ve seen on the sides of buses: an assemblage of bent coppers (Anthony Mackie, Clifton Collins Jr) and ex-special-forces mercs (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Norman Reedus, Aaron Paul) who, after almost botching what they believe to be their final heist, have been coerced into ‘one last job’ by their Russian Mafia paymaster (Kate Winslet).

That involves the theft of a MacGuffin from a Homeland Security fortress hidden somewhere in Atlanta, something only possible if the bad guys can distract the entire city’s emergency responders with a ‘999’ – code for ‘officer down’. Basically, they’re not beyond putting a bullet in one of their own if it means getting what they want, even if there’s more to their motivations than mere greed.

Opposite them you’ve got the lone babyface (Casey Affleck), the newbie in the precinct, and a bit of a smart-arse, who finds himself puzzling the pickle he’s been dropped in when he’s fingered as the patsy by the bad guys.

And then there’s the tweener, the unknown quantity existing just beyond the lines of good versus evil as most would have it, yet a strict adherent to his own code of justice. That’s Woody Harrelson as the veteran detective styled like Jimmy Buffett with a twist of Harvey Keitel’s Bad Lieutenant. He’s straight from the pages of a Carl Hiaasen novel, and easily the most arresting character in a film that’s got characters to spare, but is short on characterisation.

That’s even more so when it comes to the women in the cast. You might get the impression from the poster advertising that Triple 9 puts both genders in the thick of the action, but in reality it’s a sausage fest, reducing its two female leads to sideline status as the ruthless bitch, in Winslet’s case, and the femme fatale cliché portrayed by Gal Gadot, a literal bimbo-in-a-bikini role that’s especially egregious considering the veteran Fast & Furious action star, future Wonder Woman and former IDF soldier could legitimately kick everyone’s ass.

Those poor choices let down what’s aesthetically a real triumph. Triple 9’s cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis captures a sweaty Southern noir vibe in bold neon hues and striking chiaroscuro, abetted by the right kind of soundtrack from Atticus Ross: enough to enhance the mood of the grim maelstrom, but not so ostentatious as to linger long in the mind after the credits roll.

Hillcoat, too, makes up for his previous ensemble picture – the pat period piece Lawless – with more substance to match the visuals, even if the plot complications get shallower the harder you look (tied off at the end by a mistake so catastrophically dumb as to put the previous two hours in a much worse light) and ultimately leave you wondering who’s worth rooting for – filmmaker included.

Triple 9 opens nationwide on Friday 19th February