Triple 9 (MA15+) National release Gods of Egypt (M) National release
John Hillcoat and Alex Proyas made their first feature films in Australia in 1988. Both debuts roughly could be described as experimental: Hillcoat’s Ghosts … of the Civil Dead was a harsh, unsettling prison picture with a cast that included Nick Cave, while Proyas’s Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds was a dystopian tale in which a brother and sister were stranded in the desert. (Proyas, who studied at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, previously had provoked controversy with his award-winning 1980 short film Groping.)
Queensland-born Hillcoat went on to partner with Cave on Australian western The Proposition (2005) before heading for Hollywood and making the film version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2009) and the violent prohibition-era backwoods thriller Lawless (2012). Violence seems to be in his cinematic DNA because his latest film, Triple 9, is a thriller about crooked cops that pulls few punches in the violence department (though not matching The Proposition’s propensity for gore).
The setting is Atlanta where, according to Matt Cook’s lurid screenplay, organised crime is controlled by a Russian-Jewish family. Patriarch Vassili (Igor Komar) is in prison and his ruthless and powerful wife, Irina (Kate Winslet, giving a commendably campy performance), will stop at nothing to retrieve the evidence being held against him. This she sets out to achieve thanks to her influence over a gang of crooked cops led by Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who is married to Irina’s sister, Elena (Gal Gadot) and is the father of her young nephew. Michael’s crew consists of the ruthless Franco (Clifton Collins Jr), the conflicted Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and a couple of lowlifes, Gabe (Aaron Paul) and Russell (Norman Reedus).
The robbery takes place in a bank where the target is a strongbox and it goes off pretty successfully: the incriminating documents are retrieved along with a sack full of money that explodes with red dye when the crims attempt to open it. (Later, Marcus reports for a briefing session at police headquarters trying to hide the red dye on his jeans.) This success doesn’t satisfy Irina, however, who demands a second heist and the retrieval of even more closely guarded evidence. Meanwhile an honest cop (an Atlanta rarity, it seems) is assigned as the partner of Marcus; this is Chris (Casey Affleck), whose mentor is veteran Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson), a good cop despite his scruffy demeanour and his fondness for marijuana. The above makes the plot sound more accessible than it is on screen. Hillcoat and screenwriter Cook don’t seem interested in coherent storytelling, a creative decision not helped by the often incomprehensible dialogue and frenzied, handheld photography. As if this weren’t alienating enough, most of the characters, even the supposedly likable ones, are difficult to embrace.
That said, Hillcoat pulls off some excellent suspense sequences: a police assault on a rundown residential building is effective, as are some later scenes in which Chris begins to wonder just who among his colleagues he can really trust. There are shootings galore, explosions, a car pileup on a freeway: all the elements of this sort of crime film. But hopes that Hillcoat may find a fresh way to tell this familiar story, as Canadian director Denis Villeneuve did last year with the excellent Sicario, gradually are dashed as the overlong movie unfolds.
Women don’t fare very well in the
film. Apart from Winslet’s homicidal matriarch and Gadot’s sexpot sister, there are only Teresa Palmer as Chris’s wife, Michelle, and Michelle Ang as Trina, a policewoman, and neither has a great deal to do. This is a boys’ movie, a cinematic video game, full of sound and fury, but in the end amounting to disappointingly little. Proyas was born in 1961 in Egypt of Greek parents but moved to Australia as a small child. After Spirits of the Air, he quickly found work in Hollywood directing The Crow in 1994 but returned to Australia to make the influential Dark City (1998) and the entertaining, underrated musical Garage Days (2002).
He made Gods of Egypt in Australia, too, giving work to a great many actors, technicians and crew in the process. The film was criticised in the US before its release for casting white actors instead of Arabs in the leading roles, but that’s not its main problem.
The opening shot is a stunner, as the camera floats over the pyramids and palaces of ancient Egypt to settle eventually in a crowded street where Bek and his girlfriend Zaya (played by Australian actors Brenton Thwaites and Courtney Eaton) are hurrying to attend the handingover of power from King Osiris (Bryan Brown) to his son, Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). The ceremony is rudely interrupted by the arrival of Osiris’s dastardly brother, Set (Gerard Butler), who kills his sibling, blinds his nephew and takes power over the kingdom.
Perhaps I should mention here that the royal characters in the film are all gods with magical powers; they are easily recognised because they’re giants compared with the mere mortals, but their squabbles are numbingly familiar.
Proyas is, we know, a skilled filmmaker, but on this film he’s working with a terrible screenplay by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, and he seems to have surrendered entirely to the lure of computer-generated effects. Every shot in the film looks phony and even though some of the CGI is undeniably spectacular, it all reduces the film’s characters, gods and humans alike, to puppets we care nothing about.
There are some undeniably rich moments. Geoffrey Rush crops up from time to time as the bald sun god, Ra, whose role seems to be to do battle every night against a giant cloud with teeth and who manages to lend a certain distinction to lines like: “It’s not worth the papyrus it’s written on.” Robyn Nevin makes a very brief appearance as an elderly woman condemned by a panel of judges — including a heavily disguised yet easily recognisable Bruce Spence — and after being convicted, explodes.
But these minor pleasures can’t compensate for the disappointment of a film that borrows so heavily from other, better, films: there are bits of Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Transformers, Mission: Impossible and The Ten Commandments, but the weak narrative and weaker dialogue with its limp jokes remain a millstone around the neck of Proyas’s attempts at visual excitement.
“Isn’t this a bit excessive?” wonders one of the female characters, and you have to agree.
is on leave.
Aside from some excellent suspense sequences, Triple 9, left, is a disappointment; below, Gerard Butler in the numbingly familiar Gods of Egypt