Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Review: Ben Affleck Robs "The Town" Blind

By Scott Tre

A good cops and robbers movie is one that succeeds in spite of the inherent predictability of the genre.  The "crime doesn't pay" moralizing of generations past is more prevalent in modern times than most of us realize.  We know that no matter how slick or advanced the robbers are, their winning streak cannot last.  We will see them pull off a few jobs with clockwork precision, sexy weaponry, and the most advanced equipment this side of a nanotechnology lab.  Inevitably, there will be that one job that goes awry thanks to a crew member that has a little too much blood lust. From there, it's only a matter of time before the climactic apocalyptic shoot-out with the coppers.  The pieces are all there and we recognize them better than our reflection in the mirror.  Yet, when pulled off with bravura and gusto, they draw us in and cater to that secret desire to see the bad guys get away with it.  It's one of those tried and true formulas that can't fail if done right.

Doug Macray (Ben Affleck) is a professional bank robber in a town teaming with professional bank robbers.  He and his crew hail from the rough and tumble Boston Neighborhood of Charleston, Massachusetts.  Charleston is a veritable breeding ground for characters like Macray and his "brother-from-another-mother" James "Jem" Coughlin (Jeremy Renner).  They are half of a four man crew who treat local banks as low hanging fruit on a the forbidden tree.  In another life they'd simply be working class Irish Americans raising families, but in this life they are the New England incarnation of the Jesse James Gang.

After knocking off a Cambridge bank and taking bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) hostage, the crew figures it would be wise to do some surveillance on her.  Macray takes the assignment, fearing that Jems viciousness might yield unnecessary bloodshed.  Macray gets much more than he bargained for and begins a romantic relationship with her.  He continues with the affair in spite of how it perplexes Jem, who is taken aback by Macray's bad judgment.  All the while, old school "G-man" styled FBI agent Adam Frawley (John Hamm) chases after the gang with the tenacity of a blood hound.  As Macray's loyalty to Jem coupled with his obligations to the old guard of Charlestons gangster traditions conspire to keep him from moving on to a new life with his lady love, Frawley closes in on him.

The Town is based on Chuck Hogans novel Prince of Thieves, but owes an equal or greater debt to Micheal Mann's Heat.  It also references plenty of other modern crime films, Scorcesian and otherwise.  It is a genre piece, not interested in recreating the wheel so much as it is in creating an efficient machine from a well worn blueprint.  Director and Star Ben Affleck has never exactly been the most celebrated actor of his generation, but seems to have found his true calling behind the camera.  He seems to want to create a cinematic identity for Boston similar to the one that Scorcese has created for New York.  While he needs much more time to achieve such a lofty goal, Affleck has shown himself to be a fast learner.

The Town does not seek to distract the viewer with meticulously framed shots that turn everything into a picturesque landscape.  In many ways, the camera work is like the Boston portrayed in the film: suffocatingly ordinary.  The camera merely documents what is in front of it.  That is not to say that the film is without nuance or style.  Quite the contrary: It is a workman like style for a workman like town.  These guys aren't glamorous, and their exploits are not documented as such.  These are average guys who happen to have a larger than life (not to mention illegal) occupation.

The story telling is straight forward.  The screenplay by Ben Affleck, Peter Craig, and Aaron Stockard portrays Charleston not as an urban hell a la Menace II Society, but as a town that sucks the life out of it's inhabitants through it's mundane grind.  Manual labor or civil service are the only happy endings that neighborhood kids can hope for.  The smart alec dialogue is perhaps a bit overdone (much of it sounds like an extension of the more memorable bits from Good Will Hunting) but perhaps this is the point.  These are guys that cover up their lack of education with wise ass remarks and a "too cool for school" attitude that New England residents know all too well.  It is a facade that covers up the deadened souls of guys who gave up on life a long time ago.  It also sets up an interesting dynamic between those that have resigned to their fates, and those who realize that they actually have a choice.

The action follows in the tradition of Micheal Mann, and while nothing here reaches the heights of the classic shootout on the streets of L.A. in Heat, Affleck manages to stage some very believable and compelling sequences.  Things happen fast and not a single moment is lingered on for stylistic flourishes.  As the staccato of machine gun fire prattles off and muzzle flashes flare, there is working class sensibility afoot.  It is spectacular to us because none of us are bank-robbers, but for these guys it is simply a job.  They shoot past any obstacle in their way.  While Heat made you hold your breath, The Town never quite reaches that level of tension yet keeps you itching for the next moment regardless.  The action scenes in a movie like this make you instantly realize just how invested you are in the characters.  That the film follows the structure and feel of Heat so closely yet still maintains its own identity is a testament to Affleck as filmmaker.

As Macray, Affleck doesn't set the world on fire but he does create a character that is believably ordinary.  Much of that is because Affleck's demeanor makes it hard to imagine him being "the best" at anything,.  Macray is good at robbing banks, yet the seemingly bloodthirsty Jem seems evn more efficient and disciplined.  Macray is sympathetic, yet Jem by comparison seems more realistic and accepting of the way things are.  That is accomplished through Jeremy Renner's "Ordinariness".  Dare I say that the characters in this film benefit from not seeming all that remarkable as people.  Life is work.  Rent, heat, gas, and food cost money.  You get it how you live.  These characters seem to understand that and not much else.  Dare I also say that this is probably the first film I have ever seen where I sympathize a little more with the crazy "live wire" character than with the "Sympathetic" protagonist.  Both are likable, and both win over the audiences fervor, but Jem is about his business.

Then there is John Hamm. Sporting a hairdo that makes him look like a Treasury officer from the Prohibition era, and sense of morality that is a bit more black and white than the crew from Charleston.  He isn't a pansy though, and Hamm brings a sense of strength and personality to a role that stands in contrast to Kevin Costner's bland turn as Elliot Ness in The Untouchables.  Frawley isn't as attractive a character as Jem or Macray, but he is smart and headstrong.  He isn't a square by any means.  He knows and understand the world the robbers operate in, her just happens to be on the other side of the fence.

The Town is a well oiled machine of a genre piece.  Sturdy and strong though not world changing.  It doesn't reinvent the wheel, but it does add a brand new tire with fresh treads.  It may not reincarnate the heist film, but it keeps it alive. Ben Affleck is one of the pleasant surprises of recent years.  That such a maligned actor is emerging as a solid master of the modern crime film is exciting to see.  Someday, this guy may very well have his Goodfellas.  One can only hope.  

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