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Entries in Town/The [2010] (1)


The Town (2010)

Dead(ish) Heat

Two things almost ruined The Town for me, neither of which has to do with the movie itself.  The first is 1995’s Michael-Mann-directed thriller, Heat, in which Al Pacino plays a troubled cop obsessed with bringing down super-criminal Robert DeNiro and his gang of bank robbers.  It’s the prototypical Heist Movie, full of intricate plans, tough-guy dialogue and eruptions of violence that have made it a classic in some circles.

The next item is the bit from Dane Cook’s standup routine where he talks about Heat; actually, he talks about how every guy wants two things in life: a pet monkey and to be involved in a heist.  He then riffs perfectly on Mann’s film, and other movies of its kind, blowing machine-gun sound effects into the microphone and screaming “Where’s the van?”  He observes how there’s always a nerdy tech guy on the heist crew, along with a loose canon who can’t be trusted not to go off in a homicidal rage.

It’s not The Town’s fault that it fits snuggly in the Heat/Cook mold with few signs of breaking out.  I doubt director Ben Affleck and co-screenwriters Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard (working from Chuck Hogan’s novel) set out to make a two-hour cliché; but they did, and they’re very lucky to have landed such a great cast—otherwise nothing could have masked the stench of familiarity that surrounds the film.

The “town” of the title is Boston’s Charlestown area, a neighborhood famous for cultivating bank robbers.  In the opening scene, Affleck’s Doug MacRay knocks over a bank with three friends.  They burst in with automatic weapons and skull masks, pour bleach on all the computers and use the employee lounge microwave to nuke the surveillance tapes.  Everything goes well until Claire (Rebecca Hall) trips the silent alarm and Doug’s gang takes her hostage.  They let her go and she finds her way to the police. 

In the commotion, Claire drops her driver’s license. Doug retrieves it and discovers that she lives in The Town.  His psychopathic best friend James (Jeremy Renner) offers to pay her a visit, but Doug says he’ll handle the problem himself.  The next day, he follows her to a laundry mat and comforts her after a breakdown at the folding table.

Running parallel to this budding love story is FBI Special Agent Adam Frawley’s (Jon Hamm) quest to solve a string of ultra-professional robberies in the area.  Hamm’s chiseled, leading-man features and floppy haircut make him perfect for the part, which calls for him to be affable with his colleagues and witnesses; but when he interrogates suspects, that handsome face becomes dark with sadistic authority.  This night-and-day complexity reminded me of Tom Sizemore’s Jack Scagnetti character from Natural Born Killers; except Frawley truly is a good guy—a very frustrated and determined one, but a good guy nonetheless.

With these pieces in play, and knowing what we know about heist movies, it’s no big feat to guess where The Town will head from here.  And for the most part, every scene plays out by the book, from the Last Big Score to the non-star-members of the gang getting killed (including the nerdy tech guy who, in this film, is a schlub who works for the power company) to Doug’s plan to take Claire away from the chaos and settle down in Florida with his cut of the money.  Much of this is also filmed by the book, engaging the brain only with constant flashbacks to where we might have first seen half the things in the movie.

But The Town is not a total wash.  What Affleck and his writing partners lack in originality, they make up for in casting and action scenes.  Affleck himself plays the sad sack, big-hearted townie with only occasional signs of a pulse; in many scenes he’s practically narcoleptic, as if he’d spent too much time in the editing suite the night before.  But this works to his film’s advantage as we watch Renner, Hamm, and especially Pete Postlethwaite (playing local florist/gangster Fergie Colm) show off their extraordinary gifts without it coming off as monologuing.  James and Fergie make memorable heavies, injecting what should have been cookie-cutter villains with dimensions only hinted at by subtleties in a glare or the menacing pruning of long-stemmed roses. Chris Cooper also pops up as Doug’s incarcerated father; he’s not worth mentioning, due to his inability to do anything but a stellar job.

Rebecca Hall does fine as Claire, but like Affleck she’s merely capable.  The most interesting facet of her performance is the way in which her expressions alternately make her look like Molly Ringwald and Mackenzie Phillips.  I’d like to see more of her, because I’m sure there’s something there; but The Town is not the best showcase for her talents.

Her mirror image is Blake Lively as Krista.  She’s James’s sister and the father of Doug’s daughter, as well as a drug addict and delivery system for the worst Boston accent since Mel Gibson’s in Edge of Darkness.  I’ve said before that I’m a huge fan of trash TV, in particular Gossip Girl, the show that made Lively famous.  She’s a pretty good actress, except when she’s doing an accent; it’s like she’s trying out an impression of Super Mario doing an impression of Don Corleone.  Fortunately for us, she’s got maybe fifteen minutes of screen-time (five of which are with Jon Hamm, meaning we can tune her out completely).  Strangely enough, I think her concentration on doing that accent crippled her physical acting as well.  Her sex scene with Affleck is the stiffest I think I’ve ever seen, and not in the hot way one would hope for.

Watching The Town’s opening bank-job scene, you might think—as I did—that the rest of the film’s action would just be pedestrian.  In the post-Dark-Knight, post-Oceans-Eleven era, it’s unthinkable to stage a robbery devoid of suspense or imagination; at the very least, we expect a spectacular getaway or last-minute complication (even the hostage-taking is bungled by its remarkable casualness).  But the second heist, an armored car ambush gone wrong, results in a spectacular car chase through ridiculously tight streets.  As cop cars descend on the scene, Doug and the boys get increasingly desperate and creative in their escape plans; if only the rest of the movie had this scene’s tension, The Town might’ve become a modern crime classic.

Instead, we’re left with a gorgeous-looking two-hour film with top-notch actors and an Oscar-winner for a director that will surprise absolutely no one.  Then again, I’m in my early thirties and have spent an unhealthy amount of my life watching movies.  Perhaps today’s teenagers and early twenty-somethings will consider The Town their generation’s heist masterpiece.  I imagine that if someone has never been exposed to a film like this then, sure, it’s an exciting, dark and unpredictable thrill-ride.  For the rest of us, though, it’s the kind of movie that people build comedy routines around.