A claustrophobic car interior in the dead of night provides the introductory setting of John Hillcoat's "Triple 9," and consider the imagery fair warning: as the picture adjusts along with your eyes, you may rightly come to expect that the red glow of taillights is the barely sparing "neo" to this pitch-black "noir," a dark crime drama the rough-and-tumble Samuel Fuller no doubt would have loved.
Australian-born director Hillcoat has established himself with outlaw stories and, shall we say, alternative Westerns, pictures like "The Proposition," "The Road," and "Lawless." So he's a good match for Matt Cook's tough-minded screenplay about cops and gangs sparring in an urban war zone. These ignorant armies clash by night, at times unable to distinguish friend from foe. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays an ex-Blackwater operative named Michael Atwood under the duress of the Russian mob (represented by a nearly unrecognizable Kate Winslet's Irina).
Michael has culled his team of the blackmailed and the desperate from Special Forces work (Norman Reedus as Russel) and an Atlanta P.D. gang unit: Marcus (Anthony Mackie), Jorge (Clifton Collins Jr.) and cop-shop washout Gabe (Aaron Paul). Once we've met Marcus' on-the-level new partner Chris (Casey Affleck) and his alcoholic uncle, sergeant detective Jeffrey (Woody Harrelson), the boards are set for a three-dimensional chess match, cops-and-robbers-style.
Hillcoat conjures a high-stress world with a dearth of fresh air. The opening title sequence pointedly contrasts Russian-mafia trappings, like boats and skyscrapers, to the depressed housing of the predominantly African-American gangs that Marcus, Chris, and Jorge police while Irina and company, above it all and with relative ease, turn the screws to protect their own interests.
Despite the milieu, "Triple 9" doesn't aspire to be anything more than an intriguing story, well told. It's fairly forgettable once it's in the rear view, but while you're in it, "Triple 9" certainly commands interest, with its sprawling cast of name players, consistently crackling tension, and hold-your-breath action sequences. Harrelson gives a particularly strong performance as the mercurial and oft-amusing seen-it-all cop who counsels his nephew to "out-monster the monster" if he intends to live to tell about it.
Cook's hard-boiled dialogue may trade in religious imagery ("Quiet as a mother's prayer"), but it's decidedly ungodly. Irina tells Michael, "You and I, we pray to the same altar," and whether she means money or a cause of ruthless self-preservation matters little. After all, what's the difference in this desperate land, where nobody hears an answer?
Rated R for strong violence and language throughout, drug use and some nudity. One hour, 55 minutes.