Thursday, October 14, 2010

New Release Review: The Town (Ben Affleck, 2010)

Ben Affleck's second feature film about the crime in South Boston is an absorbing and genuinely exciting journey. Affleck blew audiences away with his excellent debut, Gone Baby Gone (2007), which featured his brother Casey playing a private detective on the search for a missing girl. Having first exposed the corruption within the Boston Police Force and the seedy underbelly of the city's socially underprivileged, Affleck this time turns his attention to Charlestown, the armed robberies capital of America. Boston-based crime dramas are becoming their own sub-genre with other notable titles including Clint Eastwood's Mystic River (2002) and Martin Scorsese's The Departed (2006). The Town is an adaptation of Chuck Hogan's accalimed novel, Prince of Thieves. While it doesn't break really any new ground, conforming to the typical conventions of the heist film and resembling Michael Mann's classic cops-and-robbers film, Heat (1995), The Town offers up the years most intense action sequences.
Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) is the leader of his crew who specialize in knocking off banks and armoured vehicles. The film opens with some quotes that set the context of the film in Charlestown, South Boston, which is notorious for it's high prevalence of violent armed robberies. We then see an organized and methodical quartet of heavily armed, masked men hold up a Cambridge Bank branch at 8.15am, collecting all of the employees cell phones, and forcing the manager, Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), to open the safe as soon as the automatic safety is disabled. They decide to take her hostage, blindfolding her in the back of their vehicle, before letting her go unharmed close to the ocean. Traumatized by the ordeal, she is questioned by FBI Agent and specialist in armed holdups, Adam Frawley (John Hamm), who vows to find those responsible. Frawley's relentless passion and obsession is apparent throughout the entire film, and while we never see into his personal life, his air of self-importance grows a bit tiresome. Hamm doesn't really bring anything fresh to the obsessive-law enforcer role either, and gets stuck with the cheesiest lines. Frawley identifies his suspects and then begins to survey and photograph the crew, tying them to local florist and drug runner, 'Fergie' Colm (Pete Postlethwaite).

MacRay, who could have become a professional hockey player after being drafted, wasted a pair of chances with the NHL, and ultimately followed his family's legacy, getting involved with his father's old acquaintances and found his own partners-in-crime. It is revealed that MacRay's mother had deserted his family when he was a child, and his father is serving time in Federal Prison for his career as a criminal. Doug always blamed his father for his mother's disappearance, and questioned why he never searched for her. His estrangement from his father and his feelings about his mother are conveniently the topic of Doug's brief sole visit with his father (Chris Cooper). It was common for occupation to be passed down from father to son in Charlestown, and MacRay, who had never left Boston, begins to seek a way out. His father declares that Doug will always have 'heat' and that he wasn't made for anything else. The other members of his gang are his three lifelong friends including loose-cannon, James 'Jem' Coughlin (Jeremy Renner), who had served a nine year sentence in prison on behalf of MacRay, and won't go down without a fight. Refusing to abandon his lifestyle or go back to prison, his trigger happy antics in the latter half of the film border on suicidal. Following the Cambridge Bank holdup they discover that Claire is a local, and lives close by.

Volunteering to keep her under wraps, MacRay stages a meeting with her to find out what she knows and if she can identify them, but they unexpectedly form a relationship. MacRay begin seeing Claire in secret and tries to protect her from his colleagues who become suspicious of MacRay's interest. Jem is insistent that they start their next assignment as soon as possible, but MacRay is hesitant about a few of the details. His fears are realized, as gunfire ensues and they are pursued through the city by the police department. There is a sequence reminiscent of the epic street shootout in Michael Mann's Heat, and the car chase rivals the best offered by the Bourne Series. It really is heart pounding entertainment, and these are the best sequences of the film. Having successfully masked their identities and torched all the evidence in their escape van, Frawley can't link them to the robbery, but is now hot on their trail. Jem comes to Doug with another job, and Doug flat out refuses until he is threatened by Fergie, who tells him that he will kill Claire if he doesn't do the job. The last sequences of the film aren't the strongest and it wallows into cliche a little bit, even further resembling Heat. With the team adorned with a number of disguises, both as police and ambulance officers, they enter Fenway Park in an attempt to rob the millions of dollars in transit there. But Frawley has the FBI and Swat surround their position and they are compromised, embroiled in an epic shootout in their attempt to escape.

I felt that the relationship between MacRay and Claire was all a bit too convenient and their attraction a bit puzzling. I also found it a bit strange that she would reveal all of her intimate secrets, including her recent ordeal at the bank, to a relatively unknown stranger who she had only met a couple of times. A lot of the dialogue only served the purpose of being referenced again later, and it just didn't hold the film together. The latter half of the film bears no surprises as Doug becomes torn between leaving with Claire, and completing the final job and risking everything. Even the potentially exciting rivalry between Frawley and MacRay was ineffective. They are on opposing sides of the law but never does it engage us enough to really feel or side with either one of them, but after being revealed to his troubled childhood and his inability to escape Charlestown, you find yourself siding with MacRay.

Ben Affleck, who is often unreliable as an actor, was quite solid here. I felt he tried a little bit too hard at times, but his reserved and sensitive performance made him a likable protagonist at odds with his lifestyle. Jeremy Renner (who received an Oscar nod for his performance in The Hurt Locker last year), was excellent again. Rebecca Hall was also very good. Chris Cooper was unfortunately underused, as were the other two members of MacRay's team. John Hamm (the brilliant Don Draper in Mad Men) really didn't add anything extraordinary to his obsessive FBI agent. It was unfortunate that the heart of the film; notably MacRay's relationship with Claire and his father, doesn't make more of an impact. But the scenes with Affleck and Renner are great.

Affleck's direction was assured and again quite impressive. But he certainly owes a lot to his cinematographer, Robert Elswitt (who won an Oscar for his work on There Will be Blood, and is a frequent collaborator with Paul Thomas Anderson) and his editor, Dylan Tichenor (who has worked numerous times alongside Elswitt), for making the action scenes so visually stimulating. While Heat is one of my favorite films, the similarities can't be ignored here. In 1995, Heat's street shootout was one of the greatest ever filmed. While Affleck's film is technically superior, offering up some superb action sequences, it just lacks the emotional depth to it's characters that made a film like Heat an instant genre classic. The Town is still one of the years better films, it was just disappointing to see it fail to be really outstanding.

My Rating: 4 Stars

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