March 1, 2016
“Triple 9,” the action/dirty-cop/heist thriller which was released this past weekend, is not a Jewish film. At least, you wouldn’t think so based on trailers, reviews, and user comments which have flooded the internet. Yet the surprisingly overt Jewish images and negative depictions cry out for Jewish comment, so I cannot ignore it.
A quick plot summary seems harmless enough: a highly-trained group of thieves, some of whom are also dirty cops, is hired by the mafia to break into the Department of Homeland Security to steal documents. To create a diversion, they decide to kill a police officer—that is, code Triple 9—so that all the cops will be there rather than responding to the DHS break-in.
The concern is that the mafia, in the film, is entirely Russian Jews. The evil boss, played by Kate Winslet (almost unrecognizable under heavy makeup) wears a huge gold Star-of-David around her neck. The mobsters all wear yarmulkes and have tallit-katan fringes dangling below their shirts. A Kosher slaughterhouse is used as a base—dead bodies (as well as victims about to be killed) are thrown in a truck with meat carcasses. Kate Winslet reads a Hebrew newspaper. And there are several references to strong Israeli ties including a report that all Russian mobsters carry Israeli passports, the crime family own a lavish house near Tel Aviv, and implications that Kate Winslet’s mobster husband is on good terms with the Israeli government.
Not only is this shocking (particularly the images of dead bodies inside “Kosher Meat” trucks), it’s quite disturbing.
Now, I completely get that there are some bad Jews in the world. We’ve tried hard to forget Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel; nonetheless they existed. My review of “Holy Rollers,” five years ago, examined this phenomena.
But in “Holy Rollers,” at least, there were several good Jewish characters to balance out the bad ones. The film certainly wasn’t trying to show all Jews as bad. And there was a morality tale aspect to that film as the main character, played by Jesse Eisenberg, eventually came to see the error of his ways.
In Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” there’s only one Jewish character and he’s the villain. But Shylock, at least in contemporary versions, is portrayed sympathetically. We clearly understand the anti-Semitic forces that have driven him to his crazed request for a pound of flesh. And when he gives his great dramatic speech, “Hath not a Jew eyes…” we see the most famous Jewish villain as incredibly human.
But that is not so here. We are never given any background as to where these Russian Jews came from—were they the children of Soviet Union Refuseniks? They are not truly developed characters. They are just basically stock bad guys who have been adorned in Jewish iconography.
Why was this element added to the film? What good does it do? In all other ways, it’s not a Jewish film. Take the Jewish issue out and you’re left with a relatively good thriller. I thought the action sequences were suspenseful, the cinematography was striking, it was well edited, and the acting was just incredible by a really talented cast. Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, and Clifton Collins Jr. were particularly outstanding. And Woody Harrelson was great although I thought he was a bit underutilized—he should have been in more scenes.
But when you put the Jewish element in, without another positive Jewish image to balance it out, it’s very disconcerting considering the prevalence of anti-Semitism in the world and its continued influence by negative Jewish and Israeli messages.
Was this this filmmaker’s intent, to inflame anti-Semitism? Probably not. I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. I don’t know for sure, but my guess is, based on what I know of how Hollywood develops and greenlights scripts, I suspect the original story just had a regular mafia as the bad guys. The producers said that the story was common and they needed something more unique, so the filmmakers decided that making the villains Jewish would be different enough to get the project greenlighted.
But there is one other thing that I do find quite troubling. And that is the character played by Casey Affleck (not to knock the actor or his talent). He’s the nicest character in the film, a good cop, and one of the few honest ones. Pretty much the hero of the picture. His name is Chris and in several scenes he wears a gold cross around his neck (which stands in contrast to the gold Jewish star around Kate Winslet’s neck). Although the film is not overtly religious, it seems to subtly suggest, symbolically, that there is a stark difference between Judaism and Christianity. One religion is good and the other is evil.
And if that’s what the filmmakers are going for—and even if that’s not what they consciously intended but nevertheless is there—that is certainly not a message that we can tolerate. The movie probably won’t directly inspire anti-Semitic violence, but it may subconsciously contribute to a growing anti-Jewish sentiment in the world.
So the film, for all its good artistic elements, cannot be lauded. And as I said at the beginning, but say now with even more conviction, “Triple 9” is definitely NOT a Jewish film.
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