Ex-military men Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Russel Welch (Norman Reedus) lead an Atlanta criminal organization, which also includes Welch's troubled brother Gabe (Aaron Paul) and dirty cops Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie) and Jorge Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr.). The five heisters are contracted by the Russian-Israeli mob, headed by matriarch Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet), to pull off a series of jobs in order to collect the information that will free Irina's husband from a dingy Siberian gulag. Meanwhile, Marcus is assigned a new partner on the police force: the recently transferred Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), a family man who learned the principles of law enforcement from his uncle Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson), a senior detective in the city. Still with me?
After the successful smash-and-grab of a safety-deposit box in the opening minutes of the flick, Michael and co. believe that they have completed the task that Irina demanded of them, and expect her to fork over their handsome reward. However, Irina withholds payment and informs them of another daunting assignment: They must infiltrate a heavily guarded Homeland Security holding facility in order to recover key documents. The job seems nearly impossible, since any breach at the facility will trigger an immediate police response, and so the criminals are forced to get creative. The menacing Rodriguez suggests that the gang carry out a 999 (an "officer down" call) on the other side of Atlanta, drawing the police away from the Homeland Security building and providing the cover they need to execute the robbery. Marcus and good cop Chris have butted heads during their brief partnership, making the latter the logical target for the murder.
By fully presenting all three sides of this heist, Triple 9 doesn't really have any plot twists to offer. The movie bounces between the gang, the Russians, and the cops, which means viewers only get the satisfaction of waiting to see who puts all of the pieces together or pulls a trigger first. Triple 9 is more concerned with matching The Departed's "number of A-listers we can kill off" record than creating an enveloping narrative of its own. Its unrepentant machismo is drenched in trendy nihilism, a recognizable stamp of director John Hillcoat's filmmaking (The Proposition, The Road, Lawless).
However, brevity has never been Hillcoat's strong suit, and it quickly becomes clear that Triple 9 could have benefited from some healthy cuts to Matt Cook's script. There are far too many story threads that are either phased out or just don't add anything to the greater whole, such as the familial ties between Michael and his baby momma Elena (Gal Gadot), who also happens to be Irina's sister. Likewise, when Aaron Paul's Gabe learns of the 999 plot, he summons up the moral ambiguity of the actor's famous Breaking Bad character and becomes somewhat of a nuisance.
Winslet is a world-class actress, but she's woefully miscast here as the steely-eyed Irina. It's a joy to watch all of these brooding alpha males take orders from woman, but Winslet's accent comes and goes, and even at its best it borders on a parody of an Eastern European beauty. Ejiofor channels his inner Denzel with another effective turn as a commanding leader, while Affleck proves once again that he's the best dramatic actor in his family. The ubiquitous Mackie is talented enough to make the clichéd role of the conflicted dirty cop interesting. Ultimately, though, there are just too many central figures in Triple 9 for viewers to get invested in all of them, especially once the film picks up steam and the body count starts rising.
Hillcoat's action sequences certainly get the testosterone flowing, but unfortunately, none of them can match the opening bank-heist scene in terms of tension or craft. At least the underbelly of Atlanta serves as a tasty backdrop for the lawlessness and chaos that ensues. Triple 9 isn't bad popcorn entertainment, but there's a really slick crime thriller here that doesn't have room to breathe under the weight of the overstuffed cast and muddled plot.