Ben Affleck must have liked what he got a taste of in his 2007 writing-directing debut Gone Baby Gone, because he’s done his best to replicate the experience with his new film The Town. In fact, he’s even upped the ante, throwing himself into the mix as lead actor.
Like Gone Baby Gone, The Town is a hard-boiled, Boston-baked crime drama based on a best-selling novel. All of Dennis Lehane’s books must already be optioned by Hollywood, though, because Affleck defaults to Chuck Hogan’s Prince of Thieves: A Novel. (Don’t you love it when authors explain that their novels are, in fact, novels?)
Affleck stars as Doug MacRay, a career bank robber from a portion of Boston known as Charlestown—a working-class neighborhood that we are informed breeds more bank robbers than anywhere else in the world. Doug runs a tight crew of Irish-American thieves, which includes his lifelong best friend Jem Coughlin (Jeremy Renner from The Hurt Locker). Clockwork timing, freaky masks and a minimum of violence mark Doug’s work. But our real story begins when a bank job goes slightly wrong and Doug’s gang is forced to take a hostage in the form of comely bank manager Claire Keesey (fresh-faced British actress Rebecca Hall from Vicky Cristina Barcelona). Claire is quickly released, but when Jem realizes she lives in Charlestown (thanks to a stolen driver’s license), he becomes obsessed with finding out if she can identify her friendly neighborhood kidnappers.
Doug, fearing his pal’s increasingly itchy trigger finger, volunteers to spy on Claire himself to find out what she knows. While cuddling up to the potential witness, Doug makes the (rather obvious) mistake of falling in love with her. How much you wanna bet that’s gonna bite him on the ass one day soon?
As a director, Affleck handles Hogan’s character-driven novel quite well. Much of the story revolves around Doug’s decision to escape from his life of crime or stick with the family business. Affleck knows how to build the tension of the situation, and he knows when to release it—giving us a couple of high-stakes, white-knuckle action sequences. The first is a slam-bang car chase through the tight streets of Charlestown. The second is an explosive, climactic gunfight at a Boston landmark.
It’s easy to see what attracted a Massachusetts-raised boy like Affleck to this townie crime saga. It’s not the gunfights. It’s the details. And they ring mighty true on screen—from the authentic dialogue to the look and feel of the neighborhoods. (Needless to say, the film was all shot on location.) None of it is sentimental. None of it idealized. Affleck shoots in real blue-collar environments like bars and Laundromats and construction sites. The actors look like they’re operating sans makeup. Affleck fits well into the Hollywood pretty boy mold, but he knows when to tone it down.
Not that The Town is anything groundbreaking. It’s basically your standard-issue “career criminal falls in love and tries to go straight” tale. There’s even an intrepid FBI agent (Jon Hamm from “Mad Men”) on our anti-hero’s heels. Still, the writing is high-quality, the acting is commendable and the directing is tight. It’s not actually easy making audiences care about characters who, generally speaking, are bad people. But The Town manages to percolate some strong drama among its cast of characters. Personally, I would have liked to see a bit more of the planning that went into Doug’s meticulous heists (à la Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing). But then, that could just be a personal taste. As it stands, The Town is a fairly even balance between drama and action. A bit more setup and it might have tilted into the “too slow” category.
Gritty, authentic and filled with high-stakes action, The Town is heist drama done right. One more like this on the résumé, Mr. Affleck, and I’ll be ready to forgive Gigli.