TRIPLE 9 (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Language throughout, Drug Use and some Nudity

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Directed by: John Hillcoat

Written by: Matt Cook

Starring: Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Woody Harrelson, Kate Winslet, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus, Gal Gadot, Clifton Collins Jr. & Teresa Palmer

I’ll apologize in advance for sounding harsh towards this movie. Dammit, TRIPLE 9 could have been something special. Look at that cast! Watch the red band trailer! Read the plot description! This sounds and looks like an all-around awesome flick in the vein of Michael Mann’s HEAT and Martin Scorsese’s THE DEPARTED. Yet, TRIPLE 9 is a deeply underwhelming experience. There’s a fantastic movie hiding somewhere in this hodge-podge of solid performances, iffy writing, and stand-out moments mixed with well-worn clichés. Still, the end result is a decent crime-thriller that settles for being okay and never reaches any of its full potential.

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The city of Atlanta has become a bullet-filled battleground between suicidal cops and murderous criminals. Certain individuals are playing both sides of the law. Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Franco (Clifton Collins Jr.) are two cops trying to bring in some extra cash on the side. The corrupt pair are working for sadistic Russian mobster Irina (Kate Winslet) alongside career criminals Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Russell (Norman Reedus) and Gabe (Aaron Paul). These ragtag thieves attempt a high-stakes heist, which goes south in a bad way. They manage to escape, but not before causing a very public scene.

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Fresh-faced cop Chris (Casey Affleck) and grizzled detective Jeffrey (Woody Harrelson) become obsessed with these masked robbers. Meanwhile, the gang plans another high-stakes heist that needs one long distraction. This comes in the form of a Triple 9 call, meaning that a cop would need to take a bullet and possibly bite the big one for their heist to work. Marcus decides that Chris would be a perfect candidate for this scenario, but things don’t quite go according to plan.

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Great moments are hidden within TRIPLE 9’s messy screenplay. The opening heist is intense, while a street chase gives a glimpse into how action-packed this movie might have been with better writing behind it. TRIPLE 9’s big problems mostly boil down to a lazy, shoddy screenplay. Mind you, the film isn’t entirely clichéd and predictable. There’s enough here to keep someone entertained. The screenplay only lacks in bringing smart thrills, fleshing out clever twists and distinguishing itself from hundreds of other corrupt cop and heist films out there. I won’t give away specific plot points, but the story frequently sets up high stakes and almost never delivers on them. This is especially true of the anti-climactic finale. It felt like someone didn’t want to have events play out naturally and simply rushed the final scenes so the movie would be over in a hurry.

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Since the writing is a mixed bag of “meh,” the characters in TRIPLE 9 aren’t much better. Even with A-list talent behind them, I didn’t care about most of these people. Because these characters are mostly wooden, the grisly violence that stacks up as the film moves forward didn’t have as much of an impact as it probably should have. I felt more pity towards a silent security guard’s gruesome injury than I did for most of these cops/criminals’ deaths. The two biggest highlights of the cast are Woody Harrelson as an underutilized (but memorable) detective who has seen his fair share of shit and Clifton Collins Jr. as a scummy stone-cold psychopath.

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Anthony Mackie’s Marcus is played as a disappointingly one-dimensional crooked cop, unlike Chiwetel Ejiofor’s crook with a sympathetic reason driving his despicable actions. Kate Winslet (known for playing much more upbeat roles) lets her evil side shine as a sadistic Russian mob wife and chews the scenery like it’s going out of style, making the most of her limited screen time. Aaron Paul and Norman Reedus have both shown they have great talent in other projects, but are totally wasted here as two throwaway thugs. In a sense, TRIPLE 9’s A-list ensemble cast feels like a detriment. The screen becomes overcrowded with stars being squandered in poorly written roles.

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Only one performance sticks out as noticeably bad and that’s Casey Affleck as head-strong good cop Chris. We know we’re supposed to root for Chris. How do we know this? Because he’s the only main character who isn’t a total corrupt, amoral scumbag. To be fair, Affleck wasn’t given much to work with. This character feels like a cardboard cut-out of a protagonist, but that’s still a piss-poor excuse for his bland performance, seeing that every other cast member managed to make the most of their walking clichés.

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TRIPLE 9 has its moments and keeps things interesting enough to be considered an okay crime-thriller. However, there was such potential shining in every second of screen time and none of it was fully realized. Aside from a handful of great sequences and solid plot twists, TRIPLE 9 never does anything truly remarkable or notably special to stand-out in an overcrowded genre of cops, robbers, and Russian criminals. Okay, maybe that last detail isn’t in every crime-thriller, but that makes this even more underwhelming. TRIPLE 9 is a decent enough way to kill two hours, but you might as well watch any number of superior crime-thrillers instead.

Grade: B-

AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Pervasive Drug Content and Language, Nudity and Sexuality

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Directed by: Ridley Scott

Written by: Steven Zaillian

(based on THE RETURN OF SUPERFLY by Mark Jacobson)

Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Lymari Nadal, KaDee Strickland, Ted Levine, Cuba Gooding Jr., Josh Brolin, Clarence Williams III, T.I., Carla Gugino & Common

AMERICAN GANGSTER is a project that probably sounded brilliant on paper. This gangster epic was helmed by Ridley Scott, based on one of the most notorious African-American crime figures in US history, and sports a cast of A-list talent. The film even got a couple of Academy Award nominations (Art Direction and Supporting Actress) and was in a long production hell (at one point the project was scrapped entirely). Ambition set aside, AMERICAN GANGSTER plays very fast and loose with its fact-based source material. To be fair though, Frank Lucas seems to have embellish certain events on his own. AMERICAN GANGSTER is undeniably well shot and has good production values, but the script isn’t all that interesting and the running time feels long-winded (the director’s cut stretches almost 20 minutes longer too).

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The time is 1968 and the place is Harlem. Driver-turned-drug-dealer Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is doing his best to take over illegal operations left by his recently deceased mob boss. Meanwhile, detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) has made the difficult decision of turning in 1 million dollars of mob money, therefore making himself a pariah in the deeply corrupt police precinct. As Roberts engages in a fierce custody battle with his ex-wife, Frank Lucas begins running a hugely successful heroin racket (100% pure and from the jungles of Vietnam). These two men progress through their very different lives until fate sets their paths against one another…with bullets flying and a body count rising.

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I cannot fault AMERICAN GANGSTER on either of the performances from its two leads. As Lucas, Denzel Washington plays the gangster with a quiet dignity. He’s not simply a heartless monster, but also a family man who shares his wealth. However, the film doesn’t exactly glorify him as we see that he can shift from loving husband/caring son to cold-blooded killer in a matter of seconds. On the opposite side of the law is Russell Crowe as the honest cop with questionable morals at home. Even though he’s based on a real-life police officer, the character of Richie Roberts feels familiar and clichéd. We’ve seen this type of cop before in many other crime thrillers. I felt that Roberts was like a slightly toned down version of Popeye from THE FRENCH CONNECTION.

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As far as the supporting cast goes, the remaining big names are wasted in brief cameo-like roles. Ted Levine shows up as a bland fellow officer on Crowe’s special team. Cuba Gooding Jr. is wasted in the role of a rival drug dealer, while Chiwetel Ejiofor and Common fall by the wayside as two of Frank’s forgettable relatives/partners in crime. Idris Elba makes a good impression as a rival gangster, but doesn’t receive much of a role in the grand scheme of things. The only supporting performance that I feel was undeniably strong belongs to Josh Brolin as a greasy-haired corrupt cop who serves as an antagonist towards both Washington’s Lucas and Crowe’s Roberts. It makes me wish that a lot of the other side characters (and family drama) had been excised in order to give Brolin more scenes as a threat to both sides.

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Ridley Scott has proven himself in the past to be a stellar director, even when taking on less-than-stellar projects. The same goes for this disappointment, because AMERICAN GANGSTER looks great and wanted to be a huge gangster blockbuster. Though the film was successful at the box office and definitely has its fans, I felt it was very underwhelming. The script seems like a mishmash of gangster tropes and melodrama. While the gangster tropes are fun to watch (especially in the final 30 minutes), the family melodrama is a dreary slog to sit through. The aspirations to make this into a gangster movie with heart were noble, but the execution feels like a been-there, done-that experience. I watched the theatrical cut and found myself frequently bored when I should have been invested in both Crowe’s cop and Washington’s criminal. Instead, the film feels overly familiar and frequently dull.

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Though AMERICAN GANGSTER definitely has its moments and two strong performances (three, if you count Brolin’s ten minutes as a side character), it ultimately feels like a by-the-numbers disappointment. I am an avid fan of gangster movies and frequently seek them out, but I was constantly bored throughout the nearly three-hour-long running time in this fictional version of Frank Lucas’s story. The movie isn’t necessarily made better by both of its actual counterparts coming out against it as exploiting a real-life story as a melodramatic fluff. Two solid performances, a few good scenes, and solid production values aside, AMERICAN GANGSTER is kind of a snoozefest.

Grade: C

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