This week’s release TRIPLE 9 boasts quite a cast, including Oscar winner Kate Winslet, Oscar nominated Chiwetel Ejiofor, Casey Affleck, and Woody Harrelson, as well as fan favorites Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, and Norman Reedus.  Does this flick with mega star power fascinate or fail?

From the moment the opening credits finish rolling, we are dropped into the middle of the action.  A group of dirty cops are pulling off a bank job and bullets are flying.  They rarely stop flying for the remainder of the movie. Crooked policemen played by Chiwetel Ajiofor, Anthony Mackie, and Aaron Paul, among others, are all struggling under the thumb of Russian mobsters. Kate Winslet plays Irina Vlaslov, who blackmails, threatens, and declares death sentences with the enthusiasm of someone ordering a double latte.

Vlaslov has demanded these cops, who are largely working with her under duress, do a nearly impossible heist.  They decide the only solution is to use the panic that ensues during a “Triple 9”, which is code for “Officer Down” and rookie (and honest) cop Chris Allen (Casey Affleck) becomes their target. He and his less-than-by-the-book detective brother Jeffrey, (Harrelson) then try to stay alive, while figuring out who among their brothers in blue were set on murdering a fellow officer.

Director Hillcoat, who also helmed LAWLESS, THE ROAD, and THE PROPOSITION, knows his way around bleak cinematic terrain, so there was potential for greatness in TRIPLE 9.  The endless betrayals, lies, and coldblooded violence would be far more interesting if the audience has been made to care about any of the players at risk.  When not accompanied by expository dialogue and good character development, it all becomes just so much noise and confusion.

One assumes there was a deeper, more cohesive story left on the cutting room floor, such that it compelled this substantial collection of high profile actors to sign on to the project, otherwise, the embarrassment of casting riches would make no sense at all.  The finished version has too many characters we know too little about, taking largely inexplicable actions shot with angles that obfuscate rather than clarify the proceedings. It’s not for the actors’ lack of trying.  Though Ejiofor and Affleck are most memorable, with so little to work with, the cast can be commended for their committed performances. Given the talent involved, they might have had better luck just improvising for two hours.

Raising a heist or crime drama to an art form is harder than one would think.  Shifts in pace, moments of exposition, meaningful dialogue that gets the audience rooting for heroes and even antiheroes: these are all essential elements for greatness.  Movies like TRAINING DAY, DOG DAY AFTERNOON, INSIDE MAN, and TOWN have everything TRIPLE NINE appears to have aspired to yet failed to achieve.  Stick with the greats, this one was dead on arrival.