Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Town (**)

Directed by Ben Affleck


If Ben Affleck had appreciable acting talent, he could probably be just as big as George Clooney. The likability factor is there, as well as the charm, and no one can deny his boyish, yet chiseled good looks. Alas, he does not have the skill to carry say Three Kings or Michael Clayton the way Clooney can, so he’ll probably always live down his reputation as a sub-par performer, who’s main achievement was an over-exuberant Oscar speech with co-star and writing buddy, Matt Damon. Now, Affleck has taken to work behind the camera. His first film, Gone Baby Gone, was pretty good, even if it was preachy and misguided at moments. His newest film, The Town, has its moments where it delivers on that early promise, but for the most part seems like a sophomore slump.

There are quotes that open the film, explaining the infamy of the city of Charlestown, Massachusetts. There, bank robbery is like tradition, handed down from father to son. One man who’s life is steeped deep into this tradition is Doug MacRay (Affleck), who is the architect behind a group of bank robbers. He speaks in the film’s first scenes with his three partners about how they’ll pull off their latest job. They bust into the bank, equipped with dreadlocked skull masks, and take the place over. They grab the young bank manager, Claire (Rebecca Hall), and ask her to open the vault – which she’s able to do after Doug talks down her nerves. Things are going smoothly until fellow gang member, and Doug’s best friend Jim (Jeremy Renner), turns the bank clerk’s face into a bloody pulp. They’re forced to take Claire as a hostage.

They let Claire go soon after they escape, but Jim takes her ID and discovers that she lives nearby in Charlestown. He tells Doug that she could probably go to the FBI with substantial evidence, and he wants to follow her to make sure that she doesn’t talk. Doug insists that he should be the one to follow her (Jim has already shown his lack of patience with innocent bystanders), and does so almost immediately. When he approaches her at a laundromat, she does not recognize him or his voice. He notices that she is still emotionally jumpy since the heist and offers to buy her a drink. The two begin a romantic relationship, but Doug is conflicted when she begins to discuss her cooperation with the Feds and how the heist has made her feel. Things get even more complicated when Jim discovers their relationship and begins to question Doug’s priorities.

On their trail is the feisty Special Agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm), who’s constantly a few steps behind them, but this time around he has a few aces up his sleeve. For one, he has Claire giving him information. Unknowing that Doug is the robber who traumatized her weeks before, she brings Adam closer and closer to Doug. There’s also Krista (Blake Lively); Jim’s sister and Doug’s former lover. She’s a drug mule and mother – she thinks Doug is the father of her daughter, but he insists otherwise. Getting closer to her, Adam hopes to get closer to Doug. Doug tries his best to dodge Adam in his relationship with Claire, but it doesn’t help that Jim is constantly asking him to prove his loyalty by taking more, riskier jobs while the police spotlight on them grows larger and larger.

Affleck emulates two filmmakers pretty directly in this film. In style and tone, he does his best to recreate a Clint Eastwood film. Along with Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit, he floods the screen with muted but over-exposed light, contrasted by dark shadows that nearly slice through the screen. In plot, The Town borrows greatly from Michael Mann, who’s made a career producing crime films much better then this one. With parallel cop and robber storylines, Heat would come to mind, but The Town doesn’t nearly approach the moral ambiguity and narrative slickness that was in Mann’s masterpiece. Sure, if you’re going to rip-off filmmakers, you might as well rip-off one’s that are as good as Mann and Eastwood, but Affleck doesn’t bring much new to the table here, and what ends up being shown is a film without any directorial identity.

Which is a shame, because the film begins with great enthusiasm that causes you to invest great interest in the characters. Sure, the script is convenient and predictable, but all of the characters speak with flash and wit, and it moves briskly. That is, until it reaches its halfway point and becomes bogged down in crime movie archetypes. Affleck treats his criminal characters with much more affection than the law & order types, and I’m not exactly sure why. They’re not really given any real moments of redemption or sacrifice (at least not the kind that really equals their copious sins), but I feel like I was supposed to empathize with these homicidal felons more then I actually did. Perhaps I would feel for them more if Affleck didn’t supply them with cheap crutches, such as Krista or Doug’s convict father (played with disappointing dullness by Chris Cooper).

Affleck does rack up an A-list cast with Renner, Hall, Hamm, Cooper, and himself. Oh, and let’s not forget Pete Postlethwaite as the Scot florist/organized crime leader (did people forget how talented an actor he was? Seems doomed to parts like these lately). As a film director, I feel like Affleck could be really good, but not this time. There are flashes of brilliance – a scene between Renner, Hall, and Affleck at an outdoor cafĂ© sparks with suspense – but the overall product just feels a bit hackneyed and uninteresting here. Not that there isn’t an audience for star-riddled films like these. I don’t doubt that it cold be a decently sized hit, and give Affleck enough influence to make more, better films. Hey, even Eastwood made Space Cowboys.

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