In John Hillcoat’s bloody, bad-cop thriller, Woody Harrelson plays a carousing, boozy, reckless-driving detective named Jeffery Allen. He’s so twisty and chill he digs out a half-smoked roach out of an old chow mien container from the garbage of a perp they have under surveillance, and lights up in their tactical squad van – and mind you, he’s meant to be one of the good ones. There aren’t a lot of bright spots in Hillcoat’s cinematic world – some of his other feel-good hits include the dark The Proposition, and the jet-black The Road – and this script, from Matt Cook, is right up his shadowy, trash-strewn alley.
Harrelson, always a delight, is at least playing to type here. Many other actors in the film’s impressive cast are going in decidedly different directions from what you might know from them previously. There’s Chiwetel Ejiofor, playing a former merc named Michael Atwood, a man so desperate to see his young son, that he toils under the criminal auspices of his baby mama’s evil big sister, a Russian Jewess who happens to be the acting head of her incarcerated husband’s cartel. That woman, Irina, who wears red suede stiletto boots, cakes her eyes in mascara, and sports earrings the size of mouse coffins, is played with evil relish by Kate Winslet, about as far from Rose DeWitt and Marianne Dashwood as one can go and still be of Earth. Anthony Mackie takes a break from his Marvel superhero binge to play Marcus, one of several corrupt cops who works with Atwood, along with Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr.), another turnt detective, to perform a daring daytime bank heist near the beginning of the film. This operation is overseen by Atwood’s good friend and partner, Russel (Norman Reedus), who runs one of the getaway vehicles and provides valuable intel as the crew is being pursued by squad cars.
Rounding out the gang, you can also throw in Russel’s younger brother, former badge Gabe (Aaron Paul, who has the appearance of a sewer rat after a deluge), something of a wild-card in the bunch, and one not readily trusted by any of the others. Of course, with a band of thieves this connected and conniving, absolutely nobody can trust anyone else with much conviction. After the heist goes more or less as planned, Atwood delivers the goods to Irina, who, it turns out, has one more major favor to ask: Could he please also break into a local homeland security building, and snatch a box of terribly important computer discs? She helpfully disposes of one of his crew just to enforce the importance of the mission. Of course, Atwood shouldn’t fret too much about the lost member. In the course of things, Hillcoat ends up similarly dispatching nearly every major character in the film, one way or the other, in an almost Tarantino-like manner,
The only way the crew figures they can have enough time to break into this high-security building and get out before the cops arrive is to arrange the titular “999” call – in police parlance, that would be Officer Down – a directive that inevitably has precincts from all over the city dropping everything and sending everybody they have as reinforcements. As for a victim, the skeezy Marcus believes he has the perfect candidate: His new partner, Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), just brought up from “zone 2” (which apparently includes such tory Atlanta neighborhoods as Buckhead, lending him exactly zero street cred), and a man no one else seems to know, except – wait for it — his uncle, Det. Jeffery Allen, he of the aforementioned garbage roach.
Keeping the film’s numerous connections, familial and otherwise, together is a major undertaking of its viewing. So convoluted does the interplay get – to take one quick example, Gabe, the former cop and Russel’s kid brother, also worked with Marcus at a previous precinct before both got reassigned – you almost have to throw your hands in the air and just assume everyone has a connection to everyone else by a matter of a few degrees.
While there is a certain amount of delicious fun in watching a cast this high-powered mix and mingle with each other – so illustrious a list, I haven’t even yet gotten to Michael K. Williams, who plays a small role as a trans hooker named Sweet Pea – ricocheting off into different combinations and orbits, there’s so much of that here, with so little time taken to set up the scenes, that it just feels scattershot. The writing gives us precious little to go on (Atwood, who seems as if he’s doing all this nefariousness just to remain in close proximity to his son, is almost criminally underwritten, though Ejiofor gives him a certain kind of steely grace), even if many of the actors are good enough to transcend the barren pages of their scripts and flesh out their performances anyway. Winslet bites into her cruel Russian accent the way a witch might enjoy a poisoned apple, though she too isn’t given terribly much to do but appear with henchmen and sneer while wearing heavy dark lipstick.
There are many, many shootings, and guns – in Jeffery Allen’s time-off, he plays ultra-violent video games with his nephew and teaches the boy how to properly aim a Nerf assault weapon – and lots of accumulated bodies (and not just because the front employed by this Russian mob conglomerate is a large kosher butchery, “La Kosher Nostra,” Det. Allen quips), and various twisting psyches. Alas, not terribly much of it adds up. A scene near the end, where their 999 plan hatches into the film’s action climax, moves far too quickly for its own good, Hillcoat missing an opportunity to slow things down and really make the audience squirm in their seats. Instead, as with much else here, it charges full speed ahead, and as the various bodies are dispatched, very little of it resonates beyond the immediate blood and fire-bomb explosions.
Appropriately enough, the film ends on a freeze frame close-up of one of its embattled characters, nursing a fresh bullet to the stomach, a wound from which they are likely not to recover. As the frame holds on their twisted expression of pain, surprise, and resignation, you can’t help but feel as if their whole planned operation, much like the film itself, seems largely unnecessary. Most everyone involved in it dies, no one gets anything that they want, and we are left to go home and contemplate how a cast this diverse and impressive was formed around a script that didn’t give them anything much to do.
Find more confounding amusements and diversions at his blog, Sweet Smell of Success, or read his further 142-character rants and ravings at @kafkaesque83.