999 IS THE POLICE CODE for an officer down, and Triple 9 is the noir-tinged story of crooked cops falling down on the job—plus maybe one or two virtuous ones. Set in an Atlanta made out of parking garages, strip clubs, and abandoned housing projects, it's appropriately dark and seamy, and while the movie does a few things well, it doesn't do them well enough to qualify Triple 9 as a success.
Chris Allen (Casey Affleck) is the nominal hero, a lilywhite cop who's brushing up against a small conspiracy without really realizing it. On the other side is a gang made up of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Clifton Collins Jr., Aaron Paul, and Norman Reedus. Some of these guys are cops; others are just plain crooks. Meanwhile, Woody Harrelson lurks around the edges as Allen's detective uncle, and Kate Winslet pops up from time to time with a blow-dried hairdo and a Russian accent. Michael K. Williams (Omar from The Wire) appears for a hot second as a trans woman, but now I don't remember why.
Perhaps Australian director John Hellcoat (The Proposition, Lawless, and The Road) isn't quite experienced enough with this urban American milieu to turn it into an onscreen reality. A few set pieces are gripping—particularly the opening heist, in which an exploding dye pack turns the getaway car into an easily visible target—but too many characters drift through the foreground and background, and ensuing plot twists are a touch too difficult to follow. There's a second heist, but its details remain needlessly murky, and the story's depiction of the Russian mafia and Mexican drug cartels hint frustratingly at a much larger canvas. While linear and fast-paced, the script doesn't grab the viewer along with it, and although the acting is excellent, you keep wishing Triple 9 had opted for less cat-and-mouse and more of the rich character studies of a movie like Heat.