Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Film review: Affleck's 'The Town' not enough out of the ordinary

Rebecca Hall and Ben Affleck in The Town.


By John Thomason

If you’re not wary of the clichés of the heist movie by now‭ – ‬the well-laid plans gone violently awry,‭ ‬the criminal with a heart of gold who wants out of the racket after this‭ “‬one last job,‭” ‬the cop always on his tail with superhuman relentlessness‭ – ‬then you’ve managed to remain blissfully sheltered from one of Hollywood’s most exhausted formulas.

Every now and then,‭ ‬a movie such as‭ ‬Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead or the recently opened‭ ‬Animal Kingdom will inject some vitality and vigor into this corpse of a genre,‭ ‬which was already starting to feel a little orthodox when John Huston directed‭ ‬The Asphalt Jungle.

Ben Affleck,‭ ‬in his second feature as director and co-writer,‭ ‬tries his hand at the game with‭ ‬The Town,‭ ‬casting himself against type as the unofficial leader of a small but sophisticated crime syndicate in the brutal Boston neighborhood of Charlestown.‭ ‬Working from Chuck Hogan’s novel‭ ‬Prince of Thieves,‭ ‬Affleck distinguishes his film,‭ ‬somewhat,‭ ‬in the novelistic details of the heists‭’ ‬particulars.‭ ‬These aren’t the sloppy armed robbers of yesterday whose human anxieties and lack of preparation foretell their downfall.‭ ‬In the opening bank job,‭ ‬they don expensive horror-movie costumes,‭ ‬confiscate patrons‭’ ‬cellphones,‭ ‬microwave the surveillance tapes and torch any evidence that might contain a fingerprint.

But as Affleck’s film progresses,‭ ‬it settles,‭ ‬sentimentally,‭ ‬into the tired mechanics of its genre.‭ ‬His character,‭ ‬Doug MacRay,‭ ‬is a noble soul at heart,‭ ‬granted a tortured backstory to explain his life of crime.‭ ‬His drug-addicted mother abandoned the family when he was‭ ‬6,‭ ‬and his father‭ (‬Chris Cooper‭) ‬is a lifetime criminal and drunk still serving time.‭ ‬Doug was drafted to the NHL as a youngster,‭ ‬only to blow his chance at success when he physically assaulted his teammates.

So the thug life came naturally and inevitably.‭ ‬He hooked up with James Coughlin‭ (‬Jeremy Renner‭)‬,‭ ‬a loyal baddie with an intimidating neck tattoo to prove it.‭ ‬Doing nine years in prison for defending Doug’s honor,‭ ‬James is a brother-like figure who won’t permit Doug the law-abiding,‭ ‬upstanding life he desires.‭ ‬It isn’t until Doug begins to stalk‭ – ‬and subsequently romance‭ – ‬Claire‭ (‬Rebecca Hall‭)‬,‭ ‬an assistant manager at the bank his team pillages,‭ ‬that he begins to develop the courage to go straight,‭ ‬if only his friends weren’t such a problem.

Jon Hamm, foreground, in The Town.

Claire is an angel of extreme goodness,‭ ‬volunteering at the local Boys‭ & ‬Girls Club while unknowingly courting the man who could have ended her life the week before.‭ ‬She’s more archetype than character,‭ ‬but no protagonist is drawn thinner and with less distinction than FBI agent Adam Frawley‭ (‬Mad Men’s Jon Hamm‭)‬,‭ ‬a square-jawed Alan Ladd type,‭ ‬quick with a wisecrack but always one step behind his prey.‭ ‬We know nothing of the guy beyond his obsession with Doug‭; ‬there’s no depth or heart beneath the alpha male machismo.

As a writer,‭ ‬Affleck clearly has affections for the down-and-out proles of South Boston,‭ ‬a world that has grown considerably more sinister since his Good Will Hunting breakthrough.‭ ‬His‭ ‬2007‭ ‬directorial debut‭ ‬Gone Baby Gone was a riveting story of a kidnapping and police manhunt,‭ ‬a better film for its lack of over-the-top action-movie set pieces that damage‭ ‬The Town’s patina of realism.‭ ‬Though his films share a geographic and thematic consistency befitting a possible auteurist status,‭ ‬his observations about redemption,‭ ‬trust and loyalty aren’t the most original.

Moreover,‭ ‬as a director,‭ ‬he’s clearly absorbed his share of Eastwood and Scorsese movies in all their CinemaScope brutality,‭ ‬but without those masters‭’ ‬visual poetry or uncompromising cynicism.‭ ‬Instead,‭ ‬Affleck settles for a kind of secondhand distinction,‭ ‬wearing his influences competently for a surprise-free Hollywood product and nothing and more.

The Town is rated R.‭ ‬It opens Friday in area theaters.

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