NEW YORK — Kate Winslet has traded in the Heart of the Ocean necklace from “Titanic” for something a little different. In “Triple 9,” a not-very-good-but-kinda-fascinating film opening in the US this weekend, Winslet’s character Irina Vlaslov makes one hell of an entrance. A bound and gagged man and woman are quaking in the trunk of a car. Henchmen hold up a plastic baggie of chopped off fingers. Then we see her: designer sunglasses, bright red blazer and what can only be called the most blinged-out Star of David necklace yet seen on film.
Irina Vlaslov brandishes her Jewish identity as Flavor Flav once displayed timepieces. Her signifier is front, center and unmistakable. (That one of her two goons wears a yarmulke is just a little extra.) Irina’s outfit is what my mother would call “a little ungapatchka” (garish) but for the leader of a crime syndicate that happens to be Jewish, maybe it’s fairly accurate?
First, a little background.
“Triple 9” is a pretty standard “crime doesn’t pay!” story set in Atlanta, Georgia. Why Atlanta? Tax incentives, most likely. But it could be anywhere. Casey Affleck and Woody Harrelson are good cops. Anthony Mackie and Clifton Collins, Jr. are crooked cops in league with professional thieves played by Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus and, importantly, Chiwetel Ejiofor.
All of the crooks are bastards, but some are bigger ethical black holes than others. Ejiofor is a little bit likable because, as we’ll eventually learn in this convoluted tale, he’s being yanked around by Kate Winslet’s Irina. You see, Ejiofor (Michael) has, at some point after his contractor duty in Iraq or Afghanistan, sired a child with Irina’s sister, played by future-Wonder Woman and potential Hasbara Queen Gal Gadot.
Irina prevents Michael from seeing the young kippah-wearing tateleh, who cries out “Daddy!” with glee each time they do share a moment. You’d turn to a life of crime, too, if it let you be with your boy!
Also, following Irina’s dictates means the occasional encounter with Gadot, who, in her three scenes has about six lines of dialogue, but delivers them in either a bathing suit or a red dress so tight it’s quite likely the Israeli beauty later needed to be intubated for oxygen depletion.
Gadot’s character Elena is, I’m pretty sure, meant to be Israeli (indeed, one of her three scenes is on the phone from a beach house “two hours south of Tel Aviv”), but Irina is very much a wodka-guzzling Russian Jew. Her husband, the true boss, is shown via satellite calls from a snowy Russian prison and when our thieves speak his name it’s whispered that “even Putin is scared of him.” But when Irinia is seen at her lavishly decorated headquarters, she’s shown reading a Hebrew newspaper, not a Russian one. I guess when it’s time to telegraph to an easily confused audience who these people are, best to go with the ancient script of the Book.
The question, I suppose, is all of this – is any of this – Good for the Jews? The answer, obviously, is “not so much.” But before we get all hot under the collar let’s consider some context.
“Triple 9” is not a horrible movie. It has three very well executed action sequences – a bank robbery, a shoot-out in the projects and then a hostage scenario with some unexpected (and well-filmed) pyrotechnics. It also has, at its center, a decent premise, and one that explains its title.
When Irina puts the screws to the gang of thieves to pull off “one more score,” our band of outlaws are worried that there is just too much heat on them. But the clock is ticking. They realize the only way to ensure that the whole of the Atlanta PD would be looking the other way when they try their heist is if somewhere in the streets there is an “officer down” (which, in cop shorthand, is a 999.) They decide to bump off the square, pain-in-the-ass new kid, Casey Affleck, but, naturally, just before the hammer is ready to fall, Affleck ends up saving Anthony Mackie’s life. Thus enters a Moral Dilemma to which even a half-sleeping drunkard watching this dumb movie on cable can relate.
So, somebody has to be the bad guy pulling the strings behind all this. Wouldn’t it be ethically incorrect if it was never a Jewish woman? You want to tell me there are no Jewish women out there capable of running an international crime syndicate? Jewish women can do anything if they put their minds to it!
I suspect some will take issue with the representation of all this. For starters, Kate Winslet, last I checked, is not Jewish. Call me old schul but I don’t think this is necessarily a prerequisite. One of my favorite all time movie Jews, Barton Fink, was played by Italian-American John Turturro.
But Winslet is extremely not Jewish, and certainly not a Russian immigrant by way of Israel. I don’t know what the heck kind of accent she’s doing, but it’s pretty intense. Her hair and her makeup has much of the same over-the-top quality. Is this the Jewish equivalent of blackface? (Yid-punim?) I guess it’s all a matter of intent.
Having seen the film, I don’t think her performance is malign, even if it is a tad misguided. At the end of the day, it isn’t a very rich screenplay. There’s not much room to develop an inner life for the character, so they simply weigh Kate down with a tacky hairstyle and that enormous necklace.
But, maybe seeing a Jewish woman as the Big Tough behind a desk (at a kosher butcher’s front operation!) is a little bit empowering (if even it does dance a bit with “Jewish greed”)? Everything in “Triple 9” is just vague (or poorly written) enough for its cuts to remain skin deep. (And if I can use the “some of my friends are…” example, I had an Indian roommate who would lose his mind with glee every time Apu showed up on “The Simpsons.” The price-gauging convenience store clerk is far more of a stereotype than this.)
It’s only a rare movie set in the drug culture where we get a Russian Jewish villain
If Irina were a man, maybe this would tread into some dangerous waters – a crafty Jew squeezing desperate people (desperate black people!) for more of their filthy lucre! Then again, even that stereotype isn’t one that’s seen in films too frequently. (And Baruch Hashem for small favors!)
“Triple 9” has a side-story set amidst Atlanta’s Latino gangs. Find me a drug movie that doesn’t feature some tattooed, thugged-out Hispanics. A Hispanic family buying tickets to a cop movie sits there wondering “Gee, I wonder how long until the humiliating scene?” And that’s not even getting into movies that are actually set in Mexico, like last year’s “Sicario,” which prompted my colleague Bilge Ebiri to pointedly ask if there exist any contemporary films set there that suggest you won’t be beheaded or thrown in a vat of acid the second you arrive.
Whereas for Jews, this is a one-shot deal: It’s only a rare movie set in the drug culture where we get a Russian Jewish villain.
Representation is film is a thorny subject. Every group wants it, but they want it on their terms. But the marketplace demands action and thrills and that usually means heroes and villains. I feel it’s important for filmmakers to be careful with those villain roles. At the end of the day, stories need to be about characters, not types. While nothing that ought to inspire a letter writing campaign from the ADL,“Triple 9” fails to make it past shorthand.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer and critic based in New York City whose work regularly appears in the Guardian, the New York Daily News, VanityFair.com, The Times of Israel and Mashable.
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