Bad cop movies — whether bad movies about cops or movies about bad cops — can be like those Arctic core samples from which scientists determine long-gone CO2 levels, though in this case they're measuring American anxiety about police authority. Pop on John Hillcoat's agonized pulp thriller Triple 9 in 20 years and you'll at least have evidence of the current national wariness toward the militarization of that now-stouter-than-thin blue line. It's also a précis on the personal fallibility of individual officers — and, apparently, of what happens when producers cut up a long, complex film into something they consider more accessible.
This is a bad cop movie in both senses of the phrase, one thick with murderers, dope sniffers and special-ops monsters, all prepared to put their own concerns and safety above those of the public they've sworn to protect. An exemplary cast runs through the motions of shooting innocents and betraying one another, but Matt Cook's script, while generous in its killings, is never tough-minded about its antiheroes. As he leads his bad-apple crew through elaborate crimes, the best of Triple 9's bad cops has his reasons, including a family kidnapped by the Israeli-Russian mafia, here embodied by Kate Winslet as the delectably named Irina Vlaslov.
She's hilarious, but this material might be more engaging if it investigated why real cops turn crooked or power-mad — a heel turn made electric in last year's documentary The Seven Five. Instead, Hillcoat and Cook make Winslet's haughty, brittle Eastern Euro fashion beast into a Grand Theft Auto quest hub, a cartoon who demands that a haunted Atlanta officer (Chiwetel Ejiofor) pull off R-rated Missions: Impossible.
The film opens well, with one of those capers: a clockwork bank heist whose construction as a sequence is as intricate as what the characters are up to. Like the bank robbery we're watching Triple 9's hooded hoods execute, the set piece always feels as if it might spin out of control, and viewers must huff along to keep up. Who's heisting what, and why, is never as clear as the how — Hillcoat and Cook like to catch us up as we go. That's invigorating as that heist becomes a chase becomes a shootout, all misted over by one of the bank's exploding dye packs.
Hillcoat's interest in step-by-step procedure is still involving during a long early scene of chaotic police work in which Casey Affleck's Grade-A Certified Good Cop leads a SWAT team through the apartment of a drug kingpin, sweating each door, closet and corner.
The thrill wears off, though, as the story becomes convoluted, motivations get hidden from us and characters languish as thumbnails. The story isn't complex, but its telling is tangled, often willfully so. It's the kind of movie in which one character suggests to the gang one of those ideas so crazy that it just might work — in this case, the “Triple 9” of the title. But then the scene ends with everyone mulling over the ramifications of a term the film won’t get around to actually defining for quite a while.
Here's a cheat sheet: The title has nothing to do with that bonkers Herman Cain tax plan from four years ago. It's instead police code for an officer killed in the line of duty. The mobsters have tasked the team — featuring non-entity characters played by Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Norman Reedus and Clifton Collins Jr. — with thieving a Who Cares from an Impregnable Wherever. How to buy the time needed for the job? Trick a local thug into assassinating an earnest newbie cop (Affleck) who has harassed him. The logic: Every P.O. in Hotlanta will rush to that scene rather than to the heist.
That's a vicious setup worthy of Hammett, arresting and upsetting and perhaps irresponsible to throw up on movie screens across gun-mad America. It's powered by our understanding of police tribalism, represented here by Woody Harrelson, in an Old Glory tie, as something like Winslet's counterweight. He plays the sad old salt, woozy with drugs he's seized off perps, convinced something big is going to hit his town soon.
Too bad Triple 9 has so little time for these people. It's got three hours of plot stuffed into just under two hours, and the breath-to-breath storytelling of those early set pieces gives way to structural uncertainty and then incoherence — it's hard to tell how much time has passed between scenes, or just why, as the twists come, the characters would suddenly turn so dumb. The cast is often stranded in such familiar scenes that the filmmakers don't bother to give us all the key beats of their arcs.
Aaron Paul plays a bottomed-out junkie, skittish and unreliable — quite possibly the last thing the world ever needs to see him play again. Ejiofor proves sturdy as the not-quite-good man forced to do bad to save his family, but he never distinguishes the part. You've seen this before, even in at least one Fast & Furious movie. The ending is grim, which perhaps is supposed to tell us something about crime not paying, but since Triple 9 riffs on, rather than examines, our ambivalence toward police state-ism, it illuminates nothing for us today.
In a couple of decades, though, it might be worth another look. One thing I expect will astonish viewers then: The only black woman with a speaking part in a film set in Atlanta in the 2010s is a pantsless addict dancing on a dumpster. (Several others grind topless in the strip club, of course.)