A downbeat air of menace and mendacity suffuses “Triple 9,” in which a stellar cast and taut pacing lend only modest interest to what might otherwise have been a thoroughly disposable urban thriller.
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie and Casey Affleck take the lead in a grim crime drama in which bad cops seem to be squinting from beneath every cherry top, and even the good cops are slightly tarnished. From the film’s moody opening sequence, shot in near darkness, it’s clear that the audience isn’t supposed to know who’s on the up-and-up in “Triple 9.” Like the similarly sordid mood piece “Killing Them Softly” (2012), this hard-edged portrait of corruption takes a dim view of just about everything in American culture: in this case, a frayed social contract, the disintegration of public trust and a gun culture that pervades everything from “Grand Theft Auto” to birthday toys.
Directed by John Hillcoat (“The Proposition,” “The Road”) from a script by Matt Cook, “Triple 9” derives its title — police code for “officer down” — from a crucial plot point in the film, when a policeman is shot. Staged as an intricate series of heists, fake-outs, brief moments of exposition and the requisite shootouts and car chases, the movie possesses familiar macho swagger, its charismatic stars clearly relishing the opportunity to talk tough and act hard. Luckily, all that strenuous posing doesn’t make Affleck any less appealing, even if he insists on compulsively chewing gum throughout the production. Woody Harrelson, revisiting some character quirks from his brutal turn in the police drama “Rampart,” seems to be in his element in a colorful cameo, using a prodigious set of false teeth to chew the scenery between tokes on an ever-present doobie.
Set in the midst of Atlanta’s strip clubs, sex-work corners and gang-infested housing projects, “Triple 9” feels more like a collection of good scenes than a novel, propulsive whole. Viewers are apt to be entertained by the film’s visceral pulp pleasures, but left apathetic when it comes to its instantly forgettable genre cliches. An inadvertent bonus is the spectacle of watching Kate Winslet try (and mostly fail) to play an icy femme fatale with ties to the Russian mob, her bling-y Star of David taking the place of the neon “I’m Jewish” sign that presumably wasn’t available in time for filming. Winslet’s turn in “Triple 9” reminds viewers that even the classiest Academy Award nominees are capable of a slip here and there. It also happens to inspire one of the movie’s few moments of levity, delivered by Harrelson, when he describes her character as being part of “La Kosher Nostra.” It’s a good line, whether you’re high or as sober as a judge.
R. At area theaters. Contains strong violence and obscenity throughout, drug use and some nudity. 115 minutes.