REVIEW: Ben Affleck Narrowly Misses Greatness with The Town
As cool and straight an entertainment shot as his brother's recent directing debut was pyrotechnically scattered, Ben Affleck's The Town has got bangs, bucks and the kind of showy, signature roles aspiring actors pantomime themselves asleep to at night. The movie is as slick and tightly constructed as Affleck's debut, Gone Baby Gone, was prolix and unruly. But The Town lacks Gone's operatic ambitions. And the irony is that that lack of a grand or even grandiose plan keeps this very good film from being a truly great one.
The trackies are back, and so are the yawning townie accents. Instead of Dorchester we're in the failing Boston exurb of Charlestown, which has an almost quaint reputation as the bank robbery capital of the nation. It's a neighborhood built on an old school criminal economy: You grow up to be either a cop or a robber, and the line between the two is pretty thin.
Thirteen years ago Affleck and Matt Damon sat down to write a script, anxious to give themselves the breakout roles Hollywood had failed to supply. Swinging for the fences but determined to be true to themselves, they set it on their home turf of Boston, and Affleck's character especially embodied the class and generational anxieties that can stunt a city, and certainly the least advantaged of its citizens. Damon got the plum role in Good Will Hunting, and after deferring to his little brother Casey in his first film, here Affleck steps into the lead as Doug MacRay, the central character in Chuck Hogan's Prince of Thieves, the 2005 Hammett Prize winner The Town is based on, and the role of a Boston boy's dreams.
There's a pleasing, self-reflexive symmetry at work in Affleck's appropriation of a quintessential anti-hero like MacRay in his own film: MacRay and his crew -- comprising volatile right-hand Jem (Jeremy Renner), the stalwart Albert (Slaine), and the techie Desmond (Owen Burke) -- seem to be enacting a flamboyant gangster prophecy themselves. They commit their crimes in full, theatrical dress (in the opening scene they swish though a bank robbery in Grim Reaper burqas) and make constant, self-conscious references to cultural touchstones of crime procedurals and gangster swagger; even more than money the compulsion seems born of a lack of something better to do, or be.
For Doug especially, bank-busting feels like grim, reluctant work. Rather than ennobling or fatalizing crime as a way of life, Doug's inherited legacy (his father, played by Chris Cooper in a deft cameo, must "die five times" before he can get out of prison) is presented as an empty front. He'll put on the mask and go through the motions, but it's strictly an assumed identity; Affleck shoots each heist like the performance it is, complete with bullets that spray by the dozen but rarely seem to kill anyone.
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