The Town

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Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
The Town
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Charlestown-born bank robber Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) made the decision, after failing as a pro hockey player, to follow in his father’s footsteps and eschews the straight and narrow life. When his partner, Jem (Jeremy Renner), breaks bank heist etiquette and takes a hostage, Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), Doug falls for the pretty bank manager and decides to make a break from his life of crime. But, if you are from The Town, you do not leave “The Town.”

We have been seeing a lot of bank and armored car heist action thrillers, like “The Bank Job” and “Takers,” and they pretty much follow a formula. In “The Town,” director Ben Affleck (who also co-scripted Chuck Hogan’s novel Prince of Thieves with Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard) follows a familiar crime thriller path. But, damn! He does a first class job. Affleck makes a big leap as a filmmaker since his well received debut feature, 2007’s “Gone Baby Gone,” and creates a finely crafted crime drama.

“The Town” is a mature, complex story that begins with the bank job that will have far-reaching effect on Doug and his crew when Jem takes Claire as a hostage. When they learn that she lives in Charlestown only blocks away, Jem wants to get rid of her. Doug, though, claims that there is no way she can identify them and sets off on a one-man mission to prove that he is right. He gets close to Claire and falls in love.

Meanwhile, FBI Special Agent Adam Frawley (John Hamm) takes over the investigation into the robbery and vows to put a stop to the string of bank and armored car heists perpetrated by Doug, Jem, Gloansy (Slaine) and Desmond (Owen Burke). However, knowing who the criminals are is not the same as having evidence against them and he begins a chase to stop the robbers before they strike again. This is the essence of the story but, boy, is getting there a wild ride.

There are many fine elements that make “The Town” a top notch thriller. The script is a well-paced bit of storytelling that starts with a bang and keeps on banging up to and including the finale. Many films make a mistake and blow a tightly knit story by having a kitchen sink ending where more explosions are better. Affleck and his crew do not do this and wraps the film up in a neat, convincing package. Behind camera techs, too, are equal to the task with veteran lenser Robert Elswit immersing the viewer into Boston proper and Charlestown, in particular. Gorgeous aerial photography makes the Bunker Hill Monument and Fenway Park palpable characters in the film.

Having spent a lot of time around Monument Hill when visiting family there as a kid, I know the lay of the land. The filmmakers do not use geographic slight of hand as the action moves around the city. The location feel of “The Town” shows that Affleck knows his city and when a character turns a corner on Monument Ave, he ends up on the cross street to the avenue. This is a detail that only Bostonians would notice but it is this attention to detail that raises “The Town” above most other bank robbery films.

Now, let us discuss the acting. Ben Affleck has always been, to me, a competent, though not great, actor. He does a good and sympathetic job as Doug MacRay but it is the beautifully cast ensemble team working with the star that gives “The Town” its pedigree. Renner continues to amaze me as an actor and he envelops his character, making Jem a good friend, terrible enemy and a dangerous man. Rebecca Hall is solid as innocent Claire who could not imagine that Doug is anything else but an honest guy working at Boston Sand and Gravel (another iconic image for those who have ever driven into the city via the Leveret Connector).

John Hamm is finally breaking away from his Don Draper persona and gives a good performance as the dedicated FBI special agent bent on stopping the robbers, no matter what. Blake Lively has come a long way since her debut in “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” and gives a tough and moving performance as Jem’s sister, Krista, and Doug’s ex-girlfriend who may have had his baby. Veteran actor Pete Postelthwaite is sinister and scary as a mob kingpin, known as The Florist, who arranges the details for the heists. Chris Cooper, in a short cameo perf as Doug’s incarcerated father, is stunning in his intensity in a short scene where Doug visits him in prison. His is a notable performance in a film that has many.

“The Town” is one of the best films out of Hollywood this year and Ben Affleck has become a filmmaker of note. I give it an A-.

When the Cambridge Merchants Bank is robbed, FBI Agent Adam Frawley ("Mad Men's Jon Hamm) turns his eyes to Charlestown, that one square mile area of Boston that houses more bank and armored car robbers than anywhere else in the country.  But these criminals are harder than usual to find based on an Irish version of Omertà that the locals practice in the neighborhood they simply call "The Town."

Cowriter (with Peter Craig and his "Gone Baby Gone" partner Aaron Stockard) Ben Affleck surprised everyone when he first took seat in the director's chair with a gritty Boston crime thriller and his second outing is the opposite of a sophomore slump - he's knocked one out of the park. In fact, Affleck should become Boston's resident director because nobody does it better.  "The Town" oozes authenticity from its terrific (and geographically correct!) use of locations (the Charlestown Boys and Girls Club, the Zakim Bridge, Fenway Park, Boston Sand and Gravel) to the cast's near perfect mastery of the notoriously difficult Boston accent.

Affleck cuts right to the chase with four men in Skeletor masks robbing a bank.  Computer hard disks are fried, bleach is splashed around and one guy is unnecessarily violent, beating a bank employee's head with a gun butt.  But the man who handles bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona") notes her nerves as she tries to open the vault and softly calms her down.

He's Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck), a guy who almost made it out of the town with a pro hockey career. Ironically the town bred in Doug pulled him back and he fell back into the family business.  He's got a mother who abandoned him as a child and a father (Chris Cooper, "Seabiscuit," "Remember Me") in jail and is closest to James 'Jem' Coughlin (Jeremy Renner, "The Hurt Locker"), the 'brother' whose family took him in when his dad got sent up.  Unfortunately Jem's the guy with that hair trigger and when he ended up taking Claire hostage on that Cambridge job, he kept her license when they released her and is now concerned to learn she lives in their neighborhood.  Doug promises to check her out and is satisfied she doesn't recognize him.  But he can't stop seeing her, perhaps seeing her as his salvation and ticket out of Charlestown.  There's a problem, though.  Doug's beholden to Fergus 'Fergie' Colm (Pete Postlethwaite, "Inception") who promises him Claire will come to harm if Doug doesn't organize one last job.  And after that armored car robbery in the North End where a guard was shot, they're 'hot' with the F.B.I.

With Affleck's adaptation, though, it's not the story so much, but the telling.  There's the run down on an armored car, driven by a 'former Medford cop' who 'cracks open the Herald.'  There's the Fighting Irish tattoo that Claire spies on Jem's neck that hangs over the robbers like an unseen anvil, the 02129 zip code tattoo on a tough Townie's forearm.  Doug's missing mother hangs over his future and the truth of her past explodes in the present.  A chase scene through the cramped maze of the North End is all short stop and start exhilaration, ending with an exclamation of Omertà of the highest order.  Frawley delights upon bursting into a suspect's home, finding guns and 'Oxy' - 'a Townie's Christmas!'  A sense of melancholia weaves throughout the film with the gentle hint of an old Irish folk song or the 9/11 feel surrounding Claire's lost brother, sadness in sunny days.

The cast is excellent across the board.  Affleck makes Doug a decent guy with an unlucky inheritance, charming enough to attract a 'Toonie' and Renner's intimidating without losing empathy.  In one scene, Cooper delivers an entire way of life and Postlethwaite commands as the man who manipulates, stripping thorns from roses at Town Flowers as he lays out threats.  Hall is a solid outsider, a nice person who doesn't understand just how much of a hothouse flower she is in her urban environment.  The biggest surprise is Lively, convincing as a bleary, drug running single mom who thinks Doug's in her future because of their past.  Jon Hamm makes his biggest step away from Don Draper in a dramatic role that he nonetheless infuses with humor.  Boston rapper Slaine ("Gone Baby Gone") is a hometown natural as Doug gang member Gloansy and gets the biggest laugh of the film.

The film looks great.  cinematographer Robert Elswit's ("There Will Be Blood," "Salt") crisp and bright images, occasionally softened by rays of light, are a joy to behold and his use of establishing shots establish more than a location, they note its dividing lines.  A well crafted and subtle score moves from wistful Irish heritage to driving action.  Makeup is a little less subtle, from Blake Lively's slutty smear to a preponderance of stubble on both sides of the law.

"The Town" may not have the deep soul of "Eddie Coyle" nor the Shakespearean reach of "Mystic River," but Boston and its inhabitants have never been captured more acutely.  Affleck shouldn't be concerned about being pigeonholed as a Boston filmmaker - he should embrace it.

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