Director/co-writer Ben Affleck delivers a satisfying blend of heist thrills and human drama in The Town, a tightly scripted adaptation of author Chuck Hogan’s novel Prince of Thieves. Far from original yet confidently executed, Affleck’s sophomore outing as a director shows that he has a good eye for action and character detail, two factors that help to keep The Town fresh even when it starts feeling overly familiar. It’s easy to get caught on the film’s ingenious hook (a bank robber discovers that a former hostage lives in his neighborhood, and befriends her in order to ensure she can’t identify his gang), and the more screenwriters Affleck, Peter Craig, and Aaron Stockard reel us in, the clearer the film’s theme about taking control of your own fate becomes. Yet despite the deeper subtext, it’s the action that serves as the bait to draw us in, and once we bite on the opening scene, there’s no letting go.
In Charlestown, MA, bank robbery is a family business. Doug MacRay (Affleck) grew up there, and inherited the tools of the trade from his father, Stephen (Chris Cooper), a former thief serving a handful of consecutive life sentences for the slaying of two armored truck drivers. Unlike his father, Doug doesn’t have a taste for violence, and prefers to leave the rough stuff to his volatile best friend and partner in crime, Jem (Jeremy Renner), who’s quick with a pistol whip and twitchy on the trigger. When someone hits the alarm during their latest robbery, Jem takes bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) hostage, only freeing her once the gang has made a clean getaway. But when Jem checks her driver’s license and realizes she lives just a few blocks away, he tells the gang that he’s going to stalk her to see what she knows. Fearing that Jem’s true intentions may be more insidious than precautionary, Doug volunteers for the job and quickly becomes romantically involved with Claire. Meanwhile, crafty FBI S.A. Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm) is given evidence that implicates one of Doug and Jem’s colleagues in the recent robbery, and he starts to build a case against them. When a subsequent robbery goes awry and Ben announces that he’s quitting the life, local heavy Fergus “Fergie” Colm (Pete Postlethwaite) forces him to take part in the ultimate heist -- a daring daytime robbery of Fenway Park.
The Town fits snugly into the tradition of heist films featuring a sympathetic protagonist who seems to have fallen into his trade by fate rather than choice and is constantly searching for a way out. Caught between the grim reality of his situation and his optimistic hope for starting a new life, Affleck’s working-class thug serves as an effective emotional access point for the viewer thanks to the fact that he operates by a strict (albeit criminal) code of ethics. And while his may be the most identifiable character in the film, Renner’s and Hamm’s remain the most compelling -- the former offering a carefully textured performance of a criminal who allowed his environment to shape his personality, and the latter portraying a lawman whose unnerving frankness and underhanded techniques have no doubt served him well over the course of his career. Hall handles the role of a trusting soul betrayed with the skill of a seasoned veteran, and Postlethwaite might just be the most menacing florist ever to befoul the big screen.
Given his background in front of the camera, it comes as no surprise that Affleck is able to coax some convincing and impressive performances from his talented cast. The real revelation here is his ability to handle action; not only do his heist scenes display a particular talent for timing and tension, but a claustrophobic chase scene through the back alleys of Boston is more informed by a controlled 1970s aesthetic than the current trend toward camera flailing, and the approach helps to give the film a more timeless, classic feel than many of its flashy counterparts. Affleck deploys subtle character cues, such a as a timely cut to Renner after a telling line, and cleverly mirrors the robber’s brutal techniques with those of the FBI during a chaotic raid in a way that keeps the story moving forward while simultaneously deepening the themes.
As crime dramas go, The Town is a solid take on a tried-and-true genre with sly touches of dark humor that offer a satisfying sense of levity. Though it isn’t the type of film that’s likely to spark any major cinematic trends, it has all the familiar ingredients blended together in a way that gives its strengths more impact than its minor shortcomings, resulting in a genuine crowd pleaser.
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- Released: 2010
- Rating: R
- Review: Director/co-writer Ben Affleck delivers a satisfying blend of heist thrills and human drama in The Town, a tightly scripted adaptation of author Chuck Hogan’s novel Prince of Thieves. Far from original yet confidently executed, Affleck’s sophomore outing a… (more)