Ben Affleck isn’t Michael Mann or David Simon. But he sure wants to be. And that kind of cockiness, you just have to respect.
After his bristling, doomy directorial debut banished all memories of blind superheroes and dumb J-Lo movies, Affleck returns to remind us that Gone Baby Gone was no fluke.
The town of the title is Charlestown, another tough Boston neighbourhood which – according to the opening credits – is the bank robbery capital of America. After handing his brother Casey a chewy lead role last time out, Affleck now takes his turn to headline as Doug MacRay, leader of a gang who pull bank jobs for sinister florist Fergie (Pete Postlethwaite).
A gripping opening heist sees Doug’s childhood friend – and loose cannon – Jem (Jeremy Renner) decide to abduct, briefly, pretty branch manager Claire (Rebecca Hall), causing Doug to stalk her to see exactly what she’s telling cold-cut FBI investigator Adam Frawley (Mad Men’s Jon Hamm). Dontcha know it? Doug and Claire start falling in love. Things start falling apart.
Already, we’re in way more commercial territory than B-Fleck’s previous crime thriller (where that film barely cracked $20 million in the States, this grabbed more than $90m). But while there’s less of the dangerous moral complexity of Gone Baby Gone’s kiddie-kidnap mystery, The Town is another hugely exciting reminder of Affleck’s authentic feel for mean streets, blue-collar people and tasty language.
What’s new here is the explosive action. There’s a thundering getaway chase that pinballs violently through Boston’s cramped maze of red-brick streets while Doug’s crew – alarmingly dressed in nuns’ habits and ghoul masks – blast away with automatic weapons.
Gratifyingly, guns here really sound like guns. Not least in the eardrumpopping final shootout, an awesome battle royale that combos lock-jaw tension and deadly panic with concussive effectiveness. But once again, verbal cage-fights are the set-pieces that Affleck knows best.
Kept off-screen too long as he methodically takes down the heisters, viper-eyed Fed Hamm effortlessly murders two fantastic dialogue duels handed to him: an interrogation-room word-war with Affleck; and a sexy table-turning bar scene with Jem’s druggy sister (and Doug’s ex) Krista (Blake Lively). If only Hamm had more screen time.
If only he could have gone head-to-head with Jeremy Renner, violently charismatic as Doug’s tattooed Irish-tough blood brother who can smell betrayal in the air. Compared to Hamm and Renner’s meaty performances – not to mention Pete Postlethwaite’s fearsome rodent kingpin, with a face that’s been dragged along the street for decades – Affleck inevitably comes off a little bland, although he brings more than enough macho to hold his own.
In this man’s world of tuff-tawkin’ crooks, Rebecca Hall is slightly short-changed as Doug’s teary-eyed shot at redemption. Their lovers’ quarrels never quite touch the ones between Affleck and Renner, whose tale of bromance and conflicted loyalties is the real heartbeat of the screenplay (smartly adapted by Affleck, Gone Baby Gone’s Aaron Stockard and first-time scribe Peter Craig, from Chuck Hogan’s novel Prince Of Thieves).
Blake Lively, though, is a revelation, scraping off the Gossip Girl gloss to play seedy, brassy and damaged without actorly affectation.
There’s no dodging the fact that The Town loses its way a little in its bid to balance ingredients – not unlike Affleck’s character, who finds himself torn between living as a face-stomping hard nut and a sensitive soul.
But as a straight-up genre crime thriller, it packs rock-solid impact. Alpha-male wallop, hardboiled pathos, powerful performances, vivid atmosphere, explosive action and dialogue that’ll rattle your teeth.
There’s an even wider streak of violence in the Blu-ray’s Extended Cut (watch Ben pulverise a man’s hand with a sledgehammer as part of 23 minutes of extra footage) plus a chatty yak-track from the director and 30 minutes of diverting Making Of material.
Learn how the heists were based on real robberies. Watch Affleck coax a performance out of Hamm. See Renner being trained how to fire a gun like a punk instead of a US soldier.
Just don’t buy the DVD: it carries just two lonely featurettes, where the Blu-ray packs six on top of the other goodies.
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