A while back I was introduced to John Hillcoat's Triple 9 when we were treated to a preview of the first 9 minutes of the film. It was absolutely riveting - as we were flung head first along with Atticus Ross ' pulsating electro soundtrack into a tense bank heist carried off with military precision that goes awry and ends with a tension and bullet ridden shoot-out on the highways of Atlanta. For the full length of the clip I was completely absorbed and on the edge of my seat. In all fairness any half decent heist film with intelligent action (of which there are far too few) is going to be compelling viewing for me but with the level of intensity being put out by Hillcoat's ensemble cast the film was raised up a level.
I really didn't need to see the first 9 minutes to convince me that I wanted to see Triple 9 - I am always keen to see any film made by the man behind such films as: the dystopian nightmare The Road starring Viggo Mortensen, the Southern Americana crime tale Lawless with Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Guy Pearce & Gary Oldman and the dusty Proposition with Ray Winstone & Guy Pearce to name a few.
If you have seen any of these films there are immediate similarities that may stick out in your memory. They all have an omnipresent sense of impending dread, are filled with a bleak claustrophobic darkness and they all have outstanding casts delivering powerful performances telling extreme stories that are firmly anchored in reality. The same is very true of John Hillcoat's latest film Triple 9.
When an invite to a screening landed on my desk I was whole heartedly in for partaking of what promised to be an intense and gritty Neo-noir crime tale.
|Triple 9 Film Poster (ZOOM)|
Their plan is turned upside down when the attack is unexpectedly foiled, triggering a breakneck, action packed finale fuelled with betrayal, greed and revenge.
|Triple 9 (2016)|
A gang of criminals and corrupt cops plan the murder of a police officer in order to pull off their biggest heist yet across town.
Teresa Palmer, Kate Winslet, Norman Reedus, Aaron Paul, Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Woody Harrelson, Clifton Collins Jr., Gal Gadot
Triple 9 Website
Triple 9 Facebook
His tale takes place in a muted, darkly tinted and downbeat, seedy urban underbelly of Atlanta even the splashes of colour most conspicuously smoke, neon and reflections in the rain seem ersatz or symbolic warnings. As the story progresses one becomes more aware of how bleak this world actually is. The closest I compare it to was when I was a wide eyed teenager who managed to talk his way into a screening of John Carpenter's age restricted Escape From New York, in which Carpenter turns the island of Manhattan into a prison. The inmates are running the asylum and have descended past Lord of the flies and circling somewhere closer to Dante's vision - it is into this world gone mad that our anti-hero Snake Plissken is dropped into alone. This man against savage world was genuinely shocking and from an early age the bar had been set high on the standard of danger fraught scenarios that one could find themselves in.
Well as a jaded adult John Hillcoat managed to make my sking crawl again as he pulls no punches in showing a nightmarish world where the upper echelon authorities collaborate with anyone that aligns with their self interests, the streets are overrun with organised out of control armies of criminals and the main focus of the story - the on the ground police in the middle trying to maintain a semblance of law and order are pushed to become more like that thing they are fighting – making them more like militarised death squads - than civil servants guided by the directive of to protect and serve. They are losing the battle on the streets as well as their humanity. Fallout from this is also touched on with the arrival of fresh rookie Chris Allen played by Casey Affleck.
Your job: Out-monster the monster”
- Sergeant Detective Jeffrey Allen, Woody Harrelson
|Triple 9 Casey Affleck as rookie Chris Allen facing off in Triple 9 (ZOOM)|
This is the world Triple 9 takes place in.
At this point I should mention both; Atticus Ross' (Blackhat, Gone Girl, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Social Network, The Book of Eli) scratchy and edgy electro soundtrack and Nicolas Karakatsanis' (The Drop, Bullhead) frenetic ferocious camera work both of which bring brutal tension and rounds out the bleak atmosphere of Triple 9.
Hillcoat's Triple 9 is a brutal and absorbing take on the noir heist genre as he blends new elements with updated traditional noir. In the film we follow crack team of heist operators that find themselves in a increasingly precarious situation as they undertake riskier jobs. These heists have a greater reward but as well as raising the odds on failure (which in Triple 9 is more than likely death) it pulls them into increasingly murkier moral dilemmas.
|Triple 9 Chiwetel Ejiofor, Aaron Paul, Clifton Collins Jr. & Anthony Mackie in Triple 9 (ZOOM)|
Up until quite late in writing this I was in two minds about discussing the actors and the roles they play with some depth but as I enjoyed the discovery of the first half of the film and how all the characters fit together it would be too spoiler-ish but kudos to writer Matt Cooke for creating such a diverse and interesting palette of personalities for Hillcoat to bring to life with his cast.
With the same ferocity we follow the crime fighters on their trail as they pick through the wake of destruction, to track the gang. It's not hard to tell who the bad guys and the good guys are supposed to be, it's more a case of figuring who is worse in some cases. But as we start to understand the characters on both sides, we see how they are these opposing forces are both cut from the same cloth, a weave of which is made of uncanny insight into martial strategy and tactical training to carry it off - but a lack of understanding or regard for human life. They are two sides of the same coin as well as have a closer connection through the characters involved bringing a personal touch to the high danger.
Which brings me to another absolute highlight of Triple 9 - John Hillcoat's stunning ensemble cast which includes: Woody Harrelson (continuing to build his resume of fine modern noir characters as Sergeant Detective Jeffrey Allen whilst having fun with the role), Chiwetel Ejiofor, Norman Reedus, Teresa Palmer, Clifton Collins Jr., Anthony Mackie, Gal Gadot, Aaron Paul, Casey Affleck and of course Kate Winslet who shines. Special mentions for Norman Reedus, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Anthony Mackie who revel in their respective roles bringing dilemma, conflict, humour and charisma to Triple 9.
All putting in incredibly powerful performances but somewhat overshadowed by Kate Winslet's turn as a stone cold mob boss Irina Vlaslov. I don't think we have ever seen Winslet as we see her in Triple 9. So much so that after the screening and discussing Triple 9 with my wife she was surprised to discover that not only was Kate Winslet in the film but one of, if not, the leading character.
It's nothing like anything I have done before at all.
- Kate Winslet on her role as Irina Vlaslov in Triple 9
But there were also elements of Triple 9 I struggled with. Often with film we have to take a leap of faith or an outright suspension of disbelief for the story or characters to take on life. And the crux of the film the “Triple 9” element of the tale is not it. A Triple 9 or rather 999 is indeed American police code for officer down, the highest priority alert. When a triple 9 call goes out all law enforcement immediately make their way to the scene to support their brothers in arms. But in the wake of this - the rest of the city has minimal police support.
I stopped him and asked him what that was and he explained that it’s the highest-priority police code. If a cop gets wounded in a gun battle, he calls a 999 and police everywhere stop what they’re doing, converge on the downed officer and basically keep going until they catch the perp. Then I asked my buddy, ‘What’s going on with the rest of the city?’ And he was like, ‘Well it’s basically un-policed.’”
- From the Triple 9 Production notes
Rather the suspension of disbelief came in for me when thinking about the characters making up the gang. They seemed to be an intelligent set of very capable characters and the performances behind them bringing nuance and credibility but I struggled to reconcile their clearly elevated personalities with the motivations behind their decision-making, more so as they at times seem only a few steps from turning things around or possible redemption.
But maybe that is part of the allegory of Triple 9 even intelligent capable people can be manipulated against everything they should stand for.
|Triple 9 Anthony Mackie in Triple 9 (ZOOM)|
As we begin to understand them we begin to understand some of the dilemma which has driven them to their current state. This could and possibly should have been the most interesting aspect of the film, as much of the tension of the film, is built around moral dilemma and bad decision-making but it felt truncated - as in the story, particularly character development is compacted or abbreviated to the pertinent bits. It really felt like the film would have benefited from a longer run time, been a two parter or possibly a mini TV series – something like “Real Detective, from the archives of Sergeant Detective Jeffrey Allen”, just saying. I would be very happy to see Woody Harrelson's Jeffrey Allen in a series of films where takes on different types of criminal elements.
This is really at the heart of an interesting discussion about our fascination with crime and gangsters and how we define anti heroes and how far one is willing to let their on screen heroes go before turning the corner on that fine line and writing them off as having no redeeming traits.
But if you can overlook this Triple 9 is a gripping crime thriller played by talented performances with stunningly shot and constructed action pieces.
I was fortunate to catch up with some of the key talent of the film to discuss the making of Triple 9. In attendance were Director John Hillcoat and some of the power players from the film: Aaron Paul, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie and Kate Winslet.
We weren't given much time and as nice as it is, that's a lot of talent to talk to in such a short span of time so I didn't prepare too much as I thought I might not get a look in.
- But I was hoping to pry some insight into John Hillcoat's view of our future and where he thought the road was leading and whether this feed into his vision for Triple 9.
- Hopefully this would also deliver some insight into what draws him to this type of dark material and how he puts his vision into action getting it up on screen.
- As I mention above that I felt that the character development seemed shortened and that Hillcoat and Cook create such a unique and well fleshed out Triple 9 world I was curious to know if there were any discarded story lines, alternative plots or deleted elements that didn't make the final cut.
- I was also curious about the casting of Triple 9 and what Hillcoat though the performers would bring to the story prior to kick off. As well as the casting road to Triple 9 as both Shia LaBeouf and Charlie Hunnam were rumoured to be involved at some stage.
- What kind of preparation did Aaron Paul, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie and Kate Winslet undergo for such intense roles.
- I was also hoping to explore the construction and choreography of the action scenes as they are things of beauty with little reliance of special effects.
- This was just before the BAFTAs (where Kate Winslet took home the award for Best Supporting Actress) and I was curious about what the cast made of the Oscars race row and thoughts on the BAFTA nominations.
- Of course I toyed with the notion of trying to sneak in a cheeky question about what we can expect from Marvel's upcoming Dr. Strange, Captain America: Civil War as well as the direction Marvel are moving in as Chiwetel Ejiofor is currently shooting Doctor Strange in his role as Baron Mordo and Anthony Mackie will be returning as Sam Wilson aka The Falcon in Civil War.
- And if either had conversations with Gal Gadot, Wonder Woman in DC's upcoming films built around the Justice League about the differences in approach to DC and Marvel's films.
As I say I didn't do much preparation before, or discuss anywhere near as much as I would have liked on the day but some really good insight was derived on John Hillcoat's working style.
This is how it all went down:
John Hillcoat: Well, I love genres that put characters under pressure because - for me that creates conflict and I like to do a lot of research. A lot of these genres are extreme worlds so it sort of goes with the territory. But my children’s film and my romantic comedy are coming.
John Hillcoat: Oh! It's very tough, it took a long time to get there.
I'm always searching to find something. It’s a challenge, especially in this kind of genre as I love genre films, and I like to try find something that still has something fresh about them. And that's the big challenge.
There are plenty of crime thrillers out there, but in terms of material this one was just fantastic – the whole idea of the Triple 9. I hadn’t heard of before and it created this very rich moral dilemma. So that was very fortunate.
|Triple 9 Chiwetel Ejiofor as Michael Atwood in Triple 9 (ZOOM)|
Chiwetel Ejiofor: Well, it was a number of things. First of all - just having John involved. We talked about this a long time ago, several years ago, and the concept and the idea of it had always been so intriguing.
But I’ve always been such a huge fan of John’s films, it’s kind of awkward that he’s sitting right here as I say that. He’s such a brilliant visual film-maker so I was just thrilled to try and tell the story, and it’s a great character and obviously pulling that together with the terrific casting it was a very easy decision.
Kate Winslet: I was. It’s nothing like anything that I've ever done before and as Chiwetel was just saying - I’ve long been an admirer of John’s work as a director. As a storyteller, I think he comes across as very violent and often quite bloody. But what he does, sort of unashamedly so, is throw in all the violence and everything he wants visually and then he takes out all the music and he takes out all the noises and sound effects and he just tells a story for what it is. There’s an honesty in it that I have admired a lot since seeing The Proposition, which I loved. So I did feel very excited to be involved and to do something very, very different.
Also, this film was made quite a while ago and I had just had a baby and to be honest from a selfish acting standpoint. I just wanted a short, sharp jolt back into reality. I wanted to be terrified, I wanted to feel out of my comfort zone and to work with a great group of people and for it to give me that feeling back. And it certainly did all of the above.
Aaron Paul: Oh, absolutely. Just to reiterate what these guys were saying - it’s really John that made this one stand out. I’m so used to offers coming in to me that are just terrible scripts, but then John Hillcoat is attached I know it’s going to be a gritty, raw, honest film and that’s exactly what it was.
Aaron Paul: I have no idea. I don't know - this character was just going through so much, as an actor it’s always fun to really put yourself in someone else’s shoes. For me - I love playing really intense, emotional characters. I have no idea why
John Hillcoat: Yeah, that was a challenge. Juggling that many parts and how they all fit was a real challenge. But what was amazing about it, and I was really blessed with this cast - was the commitment and the way that each of them had their own way of taking on the world that they came from. You know, because we’re dealing with an extreme world. Just using Chiwetel as an example his Navy SEAL trainer basically said if he does want to change profession - come to us.
|Triple 9 Kate Winslet as Irina Vlaslov in Triple 9 (ZOOM)|
Kate Winslet: Yes, it absolutely was. It was one of those very rare situations for me, as an actor, where I couldn’t identify with anything of this woman at all.
I couldn’t empathise, I couldn’t make peace with anything that she did or said. I certainly couldn’t make peace with anything she wore. Even the hair was questionable. But you know it was fun, it was fun to do something so different - it was fun to wear those terrible costumes and to have that great big hairdo.
Actually, John and I spent a lot of time talking about the look of her - because she had to look as though she believed she was put-together and well-dressed and wearing her wealth. And actually she looked a little bit like a trashy slut a lot of the time. But that was also part of the plan you know, the nails just a little bit too long, the colour not really that nice, the hair just a bit too high, two inches of re-growth, red boots with red tights, with a red coat. These are just not choices I would make.
It was fun, it was really fun.
Kate Winslet: I think we could probably all answer that question as actors. I personally feel it sort of changes everything really. Until the costume goes on on or in some cases comes off - it changes absolutely everything I don’t think you can fully play that part until the look is put together, so for me it was a big part of it.
John Hillcoat: You know, I'm going to throw in a huge part of that is hair. I can’t speak to that myself but - finding the right style, and I remember with Aaron he had a rather radical hairstyle so that sort of outside/in is an important thing, I would imagine.
|Triple 9 Aaron Paul in Triple 9 (ZOOM)|
Kate Winslet: I don’t know, I haven’t honestly thought about it. I loved it, I really absolutely loved it. Yea, probably. Yes I think so.
It didn’t feel comfortable in any way shape or form, and I did really have to see it as - a story. It was all made up, it was a character, it’s not real. Yeah, I would love to. It’s very much a different genre for me and to work with all of these guys, it was so much fun to be part of something so different. So yeah, possibly, hopefully.
|Triple 9 Kate Winslet & Director John Hillcoat on the set of Triple 9 (ZOOM)|
Kate Winslet: I just want to say something that I had forgotten about which I do think is worth mentioning. Because John is so visual as a director, one thing that he did for all of us, and the crew that I was so grateful for - was he put together, honestly, pretty much, a book of visual references that had been helpful to him in terms of telling this story.
So his visual intention, was something he shared with all of us so that everyone, the crew included, were on the same page and that was really impressive to me, that John did that. Because it is not often that happens, often you are left to your own devices and you’re working in little groups of actors but crew people doing there thing and different departments doing there thing. But that really pulled everyone together and that was important in something like this because we did all need to be very much telling the same story.
And also a description too of how he wanted it to feel, with film references, other visual references and photo images that had been useful to him.
That was something that meant a great deal because - how, as actors do you go and research these types of roles? How would I research that part? So I found that really incredibly helpful.
I wish every director did that.
John Hillcoat: I think it helps. I have enormous respect for actors because they are the ones, at the end of the day, that have to – in that instant try and get the truth. They are what you’re really looking at and to have them under that pressure of time and schedule and all the rest going on - to be able to do that is an extraordinary thing.
I think to share what the movie is, to help in anyway. I’m very glad to hear that because I think when you have all these separate groups especially with an ensemble – but I do it with all films.
And like-whys with the crew – if its a shared experience - everyone can contribute and everyone did. You have something to respond to as opposed to all these separate pockets.
|Triple 9 Atlanta free way madness (ZOOM)|
John Hillcoat: That was very intentional because I was so used to seeing, especially when dealing with police, the colour blue. You know, we even changed the police lights to amber and red as much as we could control. Also the crime world in a lot of this type of film - is New York-based or East Coast based, of course the West Coast has it's own thing going on - but it's also to deal with Atlanta. You know, the heat and it was sort of hot - so to enhance that.
But mainly colour is very powerful. Red’s are a very emotional colour and I just wanted to avoid – in this genre blue has had its day. So we intentionally tried to avoid all blue.
John Hillcoat: I take violence very seriously. I grew up in America in a very turbulent time as a young kid. I’ve seen violence. I’ve been a victim of violence, so I take violence very seriously and I think that basically, no one comes out unscathed. There’s no victors, it’s not black and white and there’s always an element of chaos. So I try to be truthful about it and it’s more about what builds up to it and what follows it. I think you can see that in the film.
John Hillcoat: Well, I think it’s a bit of both. The idea was to create a film that was also very contemporary and showing how America is now, where all the stakes have been raised right across the board. You know, including the police, the militarisation of the police, they have their own SWAT training and everything’s been ramped up. In fact, looking back on the days in the criminal world of the Italian Mafia - those were like the good old days when things were pretty quiet and peaceful.
John Hillcoat: Where do I begin? Actually, there was just a little bit here and there. They’ll be on the DVD as deleted extras - we actually changed the last scene this man [Chiwetel] shot I think it works much better and we are putting the old version on the Home Release. That's what I do I leave other materials on the DVD for people to find, discover and work out. But of course there is stuff that has to be inevitably pruned, it's a balancing act and difficult decisions made – I hope no one holds it against me.
When ruthless Russian-Israeli mob boss IRINA VLASLOV (Kate Winslet) strong-arms the crew into attempting one last, seemingly impossible robbery, they decide their best hope is to divert the entire police force’s attention by staging a “999” incident — cop code for “officer down.” With a stellar cast, taut script and explosive action, Triple 9 delivers a startlingly fresh take on the classic heist thriller.
IN CINEMAS 19th FEBRUARY 2016
Thank you and goodnight
- From the desk of Craig Grobler
The Establishing Shot: TRIPLE 9 DIRECTOR JOHN HILLCOAT TELLS US ABOUT A KEY SCENE THAT MAY HAVE BEEN DIFFERENT, WHAT DRAWS HIM TO DARK TALES & KATE WINSLET, CHIWETEL EJIOFOR, AARON PAUL & ANTHONY MACKIE DISCUSS THE MAKING OF TRIPLE 9 – IN CONVERSATION
|Craig is a retired superhero, an obsessive hobbyist, comics fan, gadget lover & flâneur who knows an unhealthy amount about Ian Fleming's James Bond.|
When not watching or making films he takes pictures, eats, drinks, dives, mentally storyboards the greatest film ever made & sometimes utilises owl-themed gadgets to fight crime.
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