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THE TOWN
(***½)

Movie Review by:
Jim "Good Old JR" Rutkowski
Directed by:
Ben Affleck
Written by:
Peter Craig (II), Ben Affleck, Aaron Stockard, Adapted from the novel "Prince of Thieves" by Chuck Hogan
Starring:
Ben Affleck, Jon Hamm, Rebecca Hall
Running time:
120 minutes
Released:
limited release: 09/17/10
Rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, some sexuality and drug use.
"...a solidly entertaining piece of filmmaking that provides viewers with plenty of emotional thrills to go along with the more conventional visceral ones."
Throughout the years, many actors and actresses have chosen to expand their creative horizons by moving behind the camera in order to try their hand at directing. One of the most unexpectedly successful of these endeavors occurred a few years ago when Ben Affleck decided to pull away from his then-stalled acting career to write and direct an adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s crime novel “Gone Baby Gone.” Instead of the insufferable vanity project that many were expecting, the film turned out to be a solid piece of filmmaking and Affleck’s direction was as strong and self-assured as could be. Having proven to naysayers with that effort that he could indeed direct a film, the challenge for him with “The Town,” his second feature, is to show that “Gone Baby Gone” was not simply a one-off fluke and that he has what it takes to carve out a second career for himself as a legitimate filmmaker. Although he may not have challenged himself from a dramatic standpoint by making another crime drama set amidst the mean streets of Boston, he has definitely upped his game in terms of size and scope without letting himself get overwhelmed in the process and the result is an uncommonly smart and well-made piece of work that proves without a shadow of a doubt that Affleck is indeed a talented filmmaker.

Based on the Chuck Hogan novel “Prince of Thieves,” the film is set in the working-class neighborhood of Charleston, an area that, according to a opening title card, has spawned more bank robbers and armored car thieves than anyplace else in the U.S. Doug MacRay (Affleck) is a second-generation criminal who, along with hotheaded best pal James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner), leads a small crew that specializes in performing meticulously planned and executed heists in the service of local crime lord Fergus Colm (Pete Postelthwaite). During the bank job that kicks off the story, things get a little bit out of control and they wind up taking one of the employees, Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), as a hostage and drive her around blindfolded for a while before letting her go unharmed. When it is discovered that Claire lives only a few blocks away, James becomes concerned about how much she really knows and Doug volunteers to meet up with her under false pretenses in order to weasel any information out of her. Inevitably, the two soon fall in love and Doug, who conceals the relationship from his friends, begins to contemplate getting out of crime for good and settling down. Alas, this proves to be easier said than done because neither James, who spent nine years in prison for killing someone who was coming after Doug, nor Fergus are willing to let him go and push him into committing increasingly risky jobs. At the same time, he is also being doggedly pursued by Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm), an FBI agent trying to gather enough solid evidence to put Doug and his gang away for good.

As you can surmise, “The Town” is not going to win any awards for the originality of its storyline--there is hardly an aspect of the plot that hasn’t been seen in a hundred other police procedurals over the years. What sets it apart from other crime films is that Affleck, as he did in “Gone Baby Gone,” is less interested in the mechanics of the plotting than he is in bringing the characters and their surroundings to life in ways that feel real. All of the characters, for example, run the risk of falling into clichés--the good-natured hood who wants out, the innocent dame, the hot-head pal, the obsessed cop--but Affleck and co-writers Peter Craig & Aaron Stockard have managed to largely avoid such a trap and have made them into three-dimensional characters whose behavior cannot be easily predicted and this helps to add a certain amount of interest to scenes that might have otherwise played as routine. For example, it is inevitable that at some point, James will discover Doug and Claire together: when that happens here, it turns out to be an alternately funny and tension-filled moment that is one of the best scenes in the movie simply because we have no idea where it is going. At the same time, Affleck also shows himself to be pretty adept when it comes to staging the more action-oriented material as well--the opening heist has a swiftness and attention to detail that may put some viewers in mind of the work of Michael Mann, a centerpiece car chase through the narrow streets of Charleston is one of the most effective such scenes to come around in a while and while it goes on perhaps a little too long for its own good, the finale heist and subsequent shootout in the bowels of Fenway Park is pretty exciting and will no doubt make the film an instant cult classic in the Boston area.

Another thing that separates “The Town” from other recent crime films is the high level of performances that Affleck elicits from his cast, most notably from himself. In the past, he has too often coasted through his roles without putting any real effort into creating distinctive characters but this time around, he has clearly decided to make more of an effort and makes the soulful criminal Doug into a real and recognizable person. Likewise, the increasingly invaluable Rebecca Hall avoids the potential clichés inherent in her role and makes Claire into a touchingly vulnerable character--when she finally learns of Doug’s deception, we can really feel the betrayal and anger. In his first major role since his star-making turn in “The Hurt Locker,” Jeremy Renner brings a ferocious high-wire energy to his role that galvanizes every scene that he is in. While Jon Hamm isn’t in the film as much as one might assume from the ads, he also makes the most of his moments as well and has a couple of great over-the-top speeches that are likely to be quoted for years to come. In smaller roles, Pete Postelthwaite and Chris Cooper, who turns up for one extended scene as Doug’s imprisoned father, make strong impressions as representatives of an earlier era of criminals who have passed their darkness on to the next generation with varying degrees of regret. The only performance that doesn’t really come off is Blake Lively’s turn as James’ sister and Doug’s former flame--in a film that otherwise feels authentic in every possible way, her attempts to come across as a tough-talking floozy with a heavy Boston accent come across as slightly ridiculous.

“The Town” does have a couple of hiccups here and there. A story point about a childhood trauma involving Doug’s long-vanished mother feels as it has been uncomfortably shoehorned in and the final scenes drag on a little longer than necessary. Nevertheless, these are minor quibbles and for the most part, “The Town” is a solidly entertaining piece of filmmaking that provides viewers with plenty of emotional thrills to go along with the more conventional visceral ones. More importantly, it fully establishes Ben Affleck as a filmmaker worthy of note. If “Gone Baby Gone” proved that Affleck could direct a film, then this one shows that he should be doing it more often.

THE TOWN © 2010 Warner Bros. Pictures
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2010 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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