Anthony Mackie

Triple 9

I like to remain open-minded about my film experiences, and sometimes I take a more cerebral approach to my cinematic choices by occasionally venturing beyond my comfort zone. But when all else fails, stick with what you know. When I saw the trailer for Triple 9, I knew this was my type of movie. Reminiscent of movies such as Training Day and Street Kings, Triple 9 promised a gritty look into the seedy world of corrupt law enforcement and the criminals to whom they are indebted. Featuring a talented cast including the likes of Chiwetel Ejiofor (Secret in Their Eyes, The Martian) and Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs), my curiosity was sufficiently piqued. It looked like the type of movie to fly under the radar, and sure enough my theater was sparsely populated.

I often say that movies are won and lost in their opening and closing sequences, and Triple 9 started with a literal bang and never let up. It begins in the back of a van, without about six men gearing up for what appears to be some type of tactical mission. Are they cops? A swat team? Bank robbers, or all of the above? They expertly execute a bank heist with precision, targeting only a singular safe deposit box. As they flee the scene of the crime and peel off their masks, we see that most of them are actually cops. They are lead by Michael Atwood (Ejiofor), ex-military private security, police officers Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie, The Night Before), Franco Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr., Transcendence), ex-cop Gabe Welch (Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad) and his brother Russell (Norman Reedus, The Walking Dead). The crooked bunch are working at the behest of the Russian mob, controlled by a very sinister Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs) as Irina Visalov, wife of an incarcerated Russian mobster.

Irina and Atwood’s relationship grows increasingly volatile after she ups the ante and insists they pull off another heist, this time from a Homeland Security facility – a nearly impossible feat. In a cruel stroke of genius, Rodriguez has a plan to divert local law enforcement’s attention while they pull of the job. When an officer goes down in the line of duty, his fellow brothers in blue respond immediately, citywide. Just as 187 is the police code for murder, 999 (triple 9) is the code for officer down, or in distress. If they can pull off a Triple 9, they can square things with Irina and walk away with a big payday. Stuck between the law and the mob, these crooked cops have their work cut out for them, leveraged to the hilt.

I enjoyed this movie for the simple reason that it was entertaining. There were some issues with pacing, as the movie wore on in its final act, but overall I enjoyed it because several scenes were nothing short of an adrenaline rush. The performances were mostly good, with Mackie and Ejiofor particularly bringing a convincing and conflicting emotionality to their roles. Winslet was as I’d never seen her, unnerving and vicious. The script faltered a bit here and there in terms of realism, but I mostly thought it was solid. You could say this was a poor man’s Training Day, and it won’t be remembered, but hey, I liked it! I give it a solid grade of: B

Pain & Gain

The trailer for Pain & Gain looked like my kind of movie, just the type of exciting, cool flick that cinephiles can expect this time of year as we gear up for the action-packed summer blockbusters.  I’m a fan of Mark Wahlberg, who is no stranger to playing the badass antihero (see The Departed and Contraband), and I liked the premise.  It promised to tell the true-life tale of an ambitious young bodybuilder who went from rags to riches, breaking a few laws along the way.   I was entertained at various times throughout the movie, but by the time the credits rolled I had an underwhelmed feeling.

Wahlberg stars as Daniel Lugo, a convicted murderer who took the lives of two innocent people in 1995 during a botched robbery.  The movie opens by introducing us to Lugo, an ambitious meathead with a voracious appetite for his version of the American Dream.  Lugo was inspired by the fictional exploits of the likes of Tony Montana and Michael Corleone, and (stupidly) aspired to be like them.  One would think that Scarface in particular would be a cautionary tale, considering that he ended up laying dead in a fountain looking like a piece of Swiss cheese – but don’t tell that to Daniel Lugo.

Lugo worked at a Florida gym, where he perfected his body and his designs on untold riches.  Accompanying him was friend Adrian (Anthony Mackie, Gangster Squad), a fellow bodybuilder with similar ambitions of greatness.  Eventually Lugo hatches a plan to kidnap and extort Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub, Hemingway & Gellhorn), a wealthy client for whom he acts as personal trainer.  Kershaw has several assets that Lugo can liquidate if he compels Victor to turn them over.  Daniel and Adrian recruit a third man for their plot, a convict named Paul Doyle (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) who has served time in federal prison.  Doyle is a humorously devout Christian who found Jesus in jail.  Perversely ironic, he has no problem jibing his Christian ideals with a criminal lifestyle.  Once the three stooges have the plan in motion, they bungle their way through, eventually getting their hands on millions of dollars.  Eventually things begin to go south with Kershaw and the gang decides they need to do another job.  Their greed eventually gets the best of them, leading them to the robbery and murder of a wealthy couple that belonged to their gym.

The movie began to lose me about a third of the way through, when I couldn’t tell if it was taking itself seriously or not.  There were several implausible scenes, including one where Kershaw seems to be invincible.  I did research after the fact, and it turns out that these farfetched things actually happened.  I can’t fault director Michael Bay (Transformers) for telling it like it is, but I can fault him for the way he chose to depict these real-life events.  The three principal characters were portrayed as funny and likeable, and so I liked them.  But by the time the movie concludes, the viewer realizes that these funny guys did a horrible thing.  Because they were depicted so comically initially, I’m not sure that the severity of their actions adequately resonated with viewers.  I enjoyed the laughs, and Wahlberg was his usual cool, badass self – but I was left with too many conflicting elements, from an emotional perspective.  I don’t attribute this to any particular depth of storytelling, but rather to a muddled approach by director Michael Bay.

Grade: C+

This article first appeared at Poptimal and was reprinted with permission.

Man on a Ledge

Lots of factors play into my decision whether or not to see a particular movie.  Sometimes the story itself looks intriguing, like Limitless or the recent Chronicle.  Other times, it’s the director that draws me in.  I’ll go see an M. Night Shyamalan movie just off GP, because I’m a fan.  More often than not though, it’s the cast that attracts me.  I like Sam Worthington (Avatar, Clash of the Titans), so when I belatedly heard about Man on a Ledge, I didn’t need much convincing.

Worthington stars as Nick Cassidy, a former police officer wrongly convicted of stealing a priceless gem from Wall Street titan David Englander, played by a scary-looking Ed Harris (Appaloosa).  Englander framed Cassidy, who was disgraced after being sentenced to prison.  After being denied parole, Nick decides to take desperate action to clear his name.  I won’t reveal the elaborate ruse that takes place, but lets just say that he devises a plan to escape from prison and soon he’s a fugitive.  Everything that happens next is all part of a carefully designed plan to exonerate Nick while finding out which other cops on the force helped set him up with Englander.  He enlists the help of Officer Lydia Mercer, (Elizabeth Banks, The Next Three Days) who is called in to talk him off the ledge.  Ah, the ledge.  Why is Nick on the ledge, and how can that help him clear his name?  Well, if I told you all that I’d spoil the movie wouldn’t I?  While Nick is on the ledge he forms a cautious bond with Mercer.  A recent mistake in the course of duty has caused her to lose favor with her peers on the force, just as Nick did when he went to prison.  This bond proves useful, because when the you-know-what hits the fan, Mercer is Nick’s only ally.

I think a lot of people are reluctant to see this movie because it seems familiar, or one note.  It’s a little smarter than that though.  It was relatively suspenseful throughout, and certain elements of the movie made it a solid caper.  Worthington let his natural Australian accent creep in a few times, but other than that he gave an earnest performance as the unlikely villain turned hero.  Anthony Mackie (The Adjustment Bureau) and Edward Burns also make appearances.  I wasn’t blown away by any one particular performance, but this wasn’t that kind of movie.  It was more plot-driven than character-driven, though the cast was more than capable.  I enjoyed the way it all unfolded, and by the time it’s over we see that Nick had a very strategic plan in place, using his law enforcement experience to predict everyone else’s moves.  The movie even offers a slight commentary on society (or at least jaded New Yorkers) by showing the perverse fascination with which passersby watch Nick, rooting for him to jump.  Was this movie deep and twisty like The Usual Suspects or as clever as Inside Man?  Of course not, but sometimes a distant second is good enough.  You won’t be blown away, but you won’t be disappointed either.  Wow. I just read the previous sentence and that was a lukewarm endorsement LOL. I’ll put it in better terms: Grade B