Australia’s John Hillcoat made a fantastic outback western called “The Proposition” in 2005 and has been on a steady decline since. “The Road” (2009) was as exacting a movie as could be fashioned from Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, but “Lawless” (2012) was a Prohibition shoot-em-up stronger on cast and production design than logic, and “Triple 9” is Hillcoat’s first real misfire — a bad-cop/heist drama that aims for the macho poetry of a Michael Mann or James Gray action film but falls far short. There’s a reason the movie has been pushed off the back of the truck into late February. It’s damaged goods.
Hillcoat can still command a hell of a cast, though — and then waste it on underwritten characters and ham-fisted dialogue. The crew of dirty police detectives and SWAT renegades who are robbing Atlanta-area banks is led by Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor of “12 Years a Slave”) and includes hothead Marcus (Anthony Mackie), sleazy Franco (Clifton Collins Jr.), wise old getaway-car driver Russell (Norman Reedus), and Russell’s little brother Gabe (Aaron Paul from TV’s “Breaking Bad”), who’s an ex-cop, a crackhead, and the crew’s weak link. Worse: He has ethics.
They’re working for — are you ready? — a Russian Orthodox Jewish mob headed up by Kate Winslet in dragon-lady mode, sporting a slip-’n’-slide Roossian accent and coolly overseeing her yarmulke’d thugs’ torture practices. Michael has a child by the dragon-lady’s hotsy sister (Gal Gadot), and is forced by this family connection into a final heist from a Homeland Security facility. Note to self: Avoid genetic ties to Russian mobsters who, according to the script, scare Vladimir Putin himself.
The film’s title comes from the dispatch code for “police officer down,” which becomes a plot point when the criminal crew needs a sacrificial lamb to buy time for the heist. Will it be Marcus’s new partner, Chris (Casey Affleck), a do-good type with more skills than he lets on? And will Chris’s uncle, the eccentric Sergeant Detective Jeff Allen (Woody Harrelson), be able to protect him?
As mentioned, that’s some cast, and they bring varying levels of commitment to Matt Cook’s moody, broody, formulaic script. Harrelson is good but he’s doing a gloss on his “True Detective” role, while Ejiofor, Affleck, Mackie, and Paul struggle to find characters amid the bromides and mean-streets mayhem. Winslet might have been a hoot if she’d let herself have any fun; except for the detective played by Michelle Ang, the female characters are there to be terrorized or gawked at. Even Chris’s stalwart wife (Teresa Palmer) walks around without pants on. I guess she plumb forgot.
The exception is Collins as the lizard-like Franco, a villain out of a cheap film noir and the only part of “Triple 9” that’s as interestingly nasty as the rest of the film wants to be. The movie has been stylishly shot (by Nicolas Karakatsanis) and poorly edited (Dylan Tichenor), with some scenes that peter out uncertainly and a story structure that seems as though it might tip over at any moment. An actively unpleasant electronic score, credited to a bunch of people including the redoubtable Atticus Ross (Oscar winner for “The Social Network”), feels like dentistry performed by Skrillex.
Hillcoat brings stray moments of style and surprise to “Triple 9” but not nearly enough to save it; for every twist you don’t see coming, there are five you probably will. The movie is hackwork and hopefully an aberration in a good director’s career.
Directed by John Hillcoat. Written by Matt Cook. Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Kate Winslet, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Clifton Collins Jr. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 115 minutes. R (intense strong violence and language throughout, drug use, some nudity).
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.