They say Charlestown, a small middle-class neighborhood in Boston, breeds more bank robbers than anywhere else. The toughness of the neighborhood inevitably toughens its inhabitants, forcing them to turn to crime in order to survive. "The Town," the excellent new crime drama from writer/director/actor Ben Affleck ("Gone Baby Gone"), demonstrates that point.
"The Town," based on the Chuck Hogan novel "Prince of Thieves," is one of the best heist films in recent memory. It has thrilling action scenes, interesting characters, and even has an effective love story. It’s not a masterwork of the genre, like "Heat" or "The Departed," but it’s pretty close, and well worth seeing.
The plot is fairly standard for this kind of movie. Doug MacRay (Affleck) is the leader of a highly skilled group of masked bank robbers in Charlestown under the control of a gangster known as ‘The Flourist’ (Peter Poslethwaite, "Inception"). His crew consists of Jem Coughlin (Jeremy Renner, "The Hurt Locker"), Gloansy Magloan (George Carroll, Jr., better known as the rapper Slaine) and Desmond Elden (newcomer Owen Burke). The group is good at what it does and is able to adjust to any situation during a robbery. During one bank job, something goes amiss; Jem panics and takes Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall, "Vicky Christina Barcelona"), the bank’s assistant manager, hostage. She is set free, and FBI agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm, TV’s "Mad Men,") is brought in to investigate. MacRay, worried that Claire could give them up to the feds, begins following her and, in the process, starts a relationship with her, thus angering the paranoid, loose-cannon Jem.
Claire dating one of the men who took her hostage may not be the most credible storyline, but this movie makes it work. Affleck and Hall have great chemistry in their scenes together, and we can understand why she’d fall for Doug. He’s the prototypical, ‘thief with honor,’ meaning he has the faint flickers of a conscience. He’s already seen what the criminal life can do to people, because his father (Chris Cooper, "The Bourne Identity") is serving a life sentence in prison for doing the same thing.
"The Town" maximizes the use of its Boston setting. As he did in "Gone Baby Gone," Affleck, a Boston native, lets the city almost become a character itself. The film’s cinematography is excellent, and the small, gritty atmosphere of Charlestown really makes the film more vivid it might not have had the same impact if it took place somewhere else.
Even though the movie is about the characters first and the action scenes second, the three heists in this movie are extremely well-done. The scenes are not over-edited or shot with hand-held cameras, like most action movies are these days. Instead, they’re refreshingly coherent, and are a prime example of Affleck’s growing prowess as a director.
As stated earlier, the fantastic cast carries this movie. Affleck, an underrated actor in the right roles ("Good Will Hunting" and "Chasing Amy" for example), is solidly understated, and his conflict is appropriately developed. Hall is very subtle with a part that could’ve become melodramatic in less capable hands. She isn’t given the usual ‘girlfriend’ role, and doesn’t make the same sort of decisions a character like hers usually makes in these movies. Hamm is excellent as Agent Frawley, giving depth to the clichéd ‘determined cop’ role. But the movie’s best performance belongs to Renner. The character of Jem is similar to Renner’s character in "The Hurt Locker." Whether he’s a bomb defuser in Iraq or a bank robber in this film, he excels at playing a man who is so defined by his job that he wouldn’t know what to do without it. When Doug falls in love and threatens to leave the life forever, we can sense his anger and desperation. His character is violent, unpredictable and is filled with a quiet menace that spreads through his scenes.
The film’s biggest flaw is that some of the other characters are underwritten and are just there to take up space. Blake Lively (TV’s "Gossip Girl") is okay in the role as Jem’s trashy sister, who has a history with Doug, but isn’t given anything to do until the last 30 minutes of the film. The other two members of Doug’s crew barely even have any lines and are just there to perform tasks during the heists.
But the strengths of this film outweigh its weaknesses. "The Town" is an exceedingly watchable film that never drags despite a running time of over two hours. It proves that "Gone Baby Gone" wasn’t a fluke and that Affleck has a bright future as a director. After spending years becoming a movie and tabloid joke, he has rediscovered his creative side behind the camera and as a writer. With "The Town," Affleck’s career has been revived.