Ben Affleck proves he's no one-hit wonder with 'The Town'
Friday, September 17, 2010
Ben Affleck made a quietly astonishing directorial debut a few years ago with the taut, atmospheric mystery "Gone Baby Gone." With "The Town," he proves he's no one-hit wonder.
A big, ambitious action crime thriller, "The Town" trades the earlier film's contemplative, mournful mood for a faster pace and smashing set pieces. It's a smart, bold genre exercise that's enormous fun to watch, harking back to gritty urban thrillers of the 1970s with an assured sense of tone and style.
Adopting the director's prerogative, Affleck has cast himself in "The Town's" lead role of Doug MacRay, a native of Boston's tough Irish Charlestown neighborhood, which as an opening title card informs us, has produced more bank and armored car robberies than any place in the United States. Doug and his best friend, Jem (Jeremy Renner), are lifelong members of one of Charlestown's most notorious and successful crews, a team that methodically goes about its thuggish business with a combination of workaday professionalism and swift, vicious violence. When the guys rob a bank and take a manager hostage, the episode sparks a series of events that leads Doug to question whether he's ready to leave Charlestown's tribal life of murder and mayhem. Meanwhile, he's being pursued by an FBI agent (Jon Hamm) who's determined to make the choice for him.
Let it be noted that "The Town," based on the novel "Prince of Thieves" by Chuck Hogan, doesn't break any narrative ground. Doug's sensitive bad guy contemplating one last job before he goes clean evokes countless Hollywood cliches (the most recent iteration being George Clooney's soulful assassin in "The American"). But if Affleck is all too willing to make his character a too-good-to-be-true paragon of moral ambivalence, he still manages to infuse Doug's struggle with touches of recognizable realism, especially by way of the characters he surrounds himself with.
Renner, whose breakout performance in "The Hurt Locker" last year earned him a deserved Oscar nod, brings a similar brand of volatile energy to the borderline psychotic Jem, whose filial loyalty Doug both appreciates and abhors. Rebecca Hall, as the bank manager the boys abduct, brings a welcome note of understated grace to an otherwise testosterone-driven exercise in male bonding and fraternal rituals. (Blake Lively has a few juicy scenes as Jem's hard-living sister, reminiscent of Amy Ryan's indelible anti-heroine in "Gone Baby Gone.")
As in his earlier film, Affleck evinces a keen eye and ear for the Boston neighborhoods near where he grew up in nearby Cambridge; his command of the area's vernacular and milieu allow "The Town" to take its rightful place next to "Mystic River" and "The Departed" as a muscular and authentic Beantown flick.
With its heists, fights, car chases and kick-in-the-pants climax set at Fenway Park, "The Town" lets action, staging and canny editing tell the story. "The Town" has a lot going for it: terrific cast, good writing, some nifty psychological reversals. But the best news is that Affleck makes it all move.
*** R. At area theaters. Contains strong violence, pervasive profanity, sexuality and drug use. 130 minutes.