Honor among thieves? Not with this bunch. These guys are playing a mean duplicitous game, and as they do, you can’t guess who will survive. That’s the mark of a solid, tense cop/crime/thriller. A good one will keep you speculating, until the last bullet leaves its chamber.
Terrell Tompkins (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Russell Welch (Norman Reedus) and his brother Gabe (Aaron Paul) go back a long way. They were in a special ops unit, and they haven’t lost their nerve. They can shoot a guy, rob a bank and create a lot of chaos without much of a conscience. Marcus Atwood (Anthony Mackie) and Jorge Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr.), two dirty cops, work with them.
The guys rob a bank in broad daylight in Atlanta. They’re out to steal a safe deposit box. Gabe, not one to stick to a plan, takes money too. They’re in the midst of a getaway when a red dye bomb in the dough goes off and causes mayhem. The heist was a job for a Russian-Israeli mob boss named Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet). She is not satisfied with the catch. She has another assignment for the group, and if they balk, she will kill them, one by one. Or, she won’t allow Terrell to see his son who is the offspring of her flighty, dizzy sister Elena (Gal Gadot, Fast & Furious 6 & 7).
A Sergeant Detective Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson) tracks the robbers. His nephew, Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), a cop, joins Marcus’s gang task force unit, becoming Marcus’ partner. Things are getting too close. The guys may have to resort to a deadly “999” scheme diversion. Triple 9 is a highest priority police code for “officer down.”
With movies like The Proposition, a Western, and Lawless (starring Tom Hardy and Shia LaBeouf) a Depression-era drama, Australian director John Hillcoat has demonstrated a penchant for cold violence perfectly orchestrated in gunfights and brawls. He is the steady hand that starts this urban story with a bang and ends it with more murder. Scenes of cops in the projects chasing drug dealers feel real. When the robbers deceive each other you don’t question much. Rarely has Atlanta seemed so gritty, but cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis (The Drop), production designer, Tim Grimes (The Wrestler) and Hillcoat take you to the wrong side of the tracks and hold you hostage.
Matt Cook’s screenplay puts a slight twist on the crime genre by grouping several disparate variables into one story: dirty cops, former special op soldiers, an alcoholic investigating detective and a heartless lady crime lord. Mix in a largely African American city, a depressed Latino neighborhood, white working class cops and the “Kosher Mafia,” and the multi-cultural potpourri becomes intriguing.
Chiwetel Ejiofor and Anthony Mackie are superb actors, but both look a bit too clean-cut to be sleazy. Within the confines of their physical attributes and perfect diction, they do their best. Norman Reedus is decent. Winslet’s accent as the unforgiving Irina is tolerable.
Clifton Collins Jr., one of America’s best character actors, is far more believable in his role as a filthy, devious lawman. Casey Affleck proves once again that he is the better actor in the family. (Why didn’t they cast him in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice?) When Harrelson smokes a joint, drinks booze or snorts drugs, you never question his commitment—to the character. Aaron Paul as the weak-minded, low-life, prostitute-using Gabe and Luis Da Silva Jr. as the skinny but deadly gang leader Pinto give the most invisible portrayals. You know they’re actors, but their characters seem like they were fished out of the gutter.
In the beginning the boys seem like they are committing a simple, but elaborately planned crime. As the film progresses, it is obvious that they have entangled themselves in a bigger, more powerful web than they perceived. That’s when you move from the back of your seat to the edge, as the noose around their necks tightens.
The solid direction, storytelling and acting by Hillcoat, Cook and the cast don’t reinvent the crime/thriller genre. They just add to the trove.
Visit NNPA News Wire Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.