Reviewed at the 2010 Toronto Film Festival.
When people seemed genuinely surprised that “Gone Baby Gone” was a solid directorial debut for Ben Affleck, I was not among them. Anyone who paid close enough attention would’ve known a guy as sharp as Affleck would have the capability to pull together something that was compelling and naturally well-cast, given he can stock up on actors he knows are underutilized. So it is with some frustration that it appears he’s taken a step backwards with “The Town,” a crime thriller that is good more of the time than it’s not, but suffers from the fact it should’ve been great.
As has been noted frequently, Affleck is back in his hometown of Boston, not in Dorchester where his slow burn adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s “Gone Baby Gone” was set, but in the wild, wild north of Charlestown, which is noted in the film’s first title card as the birthplace of “more bank robbers and armored car thieves than anywhere else in the world.” Once again co-writing with Aaron Stockard, “The Town” is also an adaptation — this time, of Chuck Hogan’s “Prince of Thieves” — and it turns out for the most part, Affleck’s sensibilities are well-attuned to the needs of an action film, which “The Town” is far more so than his last.
With a great sense of how to raise the stakes on any given scene or when to cut the tension with a clever one-liner, Affleck injects a real crackerjack energy into the story of two childhood friends-turned-bank-robbers (Affleck and Jeremy Renner) who attract the attention of an FBI task force agent (Jon Hamm) after one of their scores leaves a witness (Rebecca Hall). “The Town” eventually travels down the relatively well-worn road of having Affleck attempt to find a way out of the criminal life, inspired by a romance with Hall’s bank manager after initially seducing her for information, conflict with the illegal aspirations of Renner, but it rarely feels stale. (In fact, the film’s three robbery sequences are amongst the most gripping this side of “Heat.”)
Affleck amps things up visually wherever possible, rarely holding on a shot for longer than a few seconds unless a character is going through some deep introspection and playing with camera speed whether it’s a slow-mo of a lighter being thrown into a gas-doused van or the sped up overhead location shots that give the film a bit of a ’90s vibe. However, his interest in expediency seems to get him in trouble every now and then, whether it’s a few too many 360 degree pans (one knows it’s a little much when it’s in an office setting) and in getting some of the little things right about his characters.
Hall, who admittedly I recently predicted as one of the actresses expected to do well in Toronto, is handcuffed at times to a character that makes some exceptionally bad decisions, seeming a little too forthcoming to Affleck’s MacRay about the FBI investigation regarding the robbery she has no idea he was involved in, and subsequently doing something that seems less like a character motivation than a plot point in the second act. Likewise, Blake Lively’s turn as Affleck’s longtime friend with benefits is about as out of place as the Jason Derulo song that plays in the background during her introductory scene in a shaggy Boston pub. (While some might suspect this is because of Lively’s abilities as an actress, it has far more to do with an undercooked arc.)
Meanwhile, hopes that Jon Hamm would finally find a role worthy of his talents on the big screen will likely be disappointed to find a variation on Don Draper who is invulnerable almost to the point of parody, despite the fact that he’s basically grasping at straws when investigating McRay’s crew. It is one of the weaknesses of “The Town” that Hamm’s Adam Frawley always seems miles behind MacRay, even though he has the arrogance of Hamm’s “Mad Men” alter ego.
Ironically, the best of the central characters may be the one least developed by the screenplay — while MacRay is saddled with daddy issues (Chris Cooper gets a strong jailhouse scene as his incarcerated pops) and a burgeoning desire to do right by his new girlfriend, his partner-in-crime James Coughlin has no such restrictions. This allows Renner to run wild, delighting in a thick Baw-ston accent and an unpredictability that unsettles even those close around him. It’s a performance that’s thrillingly alive and like the film itself, he prefers to shoot first and ask questions later.
“The Town” opens wide on September 17th.