Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Review: "The Town"

"The Town" is such a well-executed cops-and-robbers drama dripping with Boston flavor, it takes us a while before we realize it's built on a mountain of Hollywood clich├ęs.

Ben Affleck, who also directed and co-wrote the screenplay, plays a careful bank robber who tosses his professional detachment out the window for the damsel-in-distress: The manager (Rebecca Hall) at the last bank he robbed.

Throw in a headstrong FBI agent (Jon Hamm) hot on his tail, a trigger-happy partner in crime (Jeremy Renner) and a local mob boss (Pete Postlethwaite) who won't let him walk away from the "family business," and the film practically churns itself out of a Screenwriting 101 class.

Oh, I almost forgot: This is the Affleck character's "one last job" before he calls it quits and heads to Florida.

(The film could have been even more pat -- I haven't read the novel on which it was based, Chuck Hogan's "Prince of Thieves," but I understand in the book the cop falls for the same girl.)

This review is sounding like a pan, but read the first half of the first sentence again: Affleck gives such a confident, authentic performance -- both in front of and behind the camera -- that these familiar tropes take on a lively, at times electric quality that make us feel like we're discovering them anew.

Renner is particularly good as Jim Coughlin, a crook and killer with two strikes against him, and swears there won't be a third. He accepts who he is, and is resigned to whatever fate a life of a crime holds for him. "If something goes down, we'll be holding court in the streets," he vows before a big heist.

When they were teenagers, Jim killed a guy to protect his best friend Doug MacRay (Affleck), doing nine years in prison without a peep. Maybe that's why Doug keeps him around as a wingman, despite Jim's tendency to shoot first, and ask no questions at all.

Affleck and his co-writers, Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard, take pains to make Doug a sympathetic character. He methodically plans out his robberies, right down to knowing the biographies of the bank guards and nuking the surveillance video tapes in the microwave, so we respect his attention to detail -- especially his efforts to prevent violence.

Things go awry when Jim kidnaps Claire (Hall). She's released unharmed, but Jim is jumpy that she might gives clues to the feds. She cooperates with Special Agent Frawley (does the FBI have regular, un-special Agents?) but fails to pass on a key detail.

Doug agrees to shadow Claire, ends up bumping into her, and finds the attraction powerful, and mutual. Though they don't have a lot of scenes together, Affleck and Hall make the romance seem fleshy and real. I especially liked the undercurrent of class rivalry between them, with Doug a palooka Townie and Claire a yuppie interloper, or "Toonie."

That brings us to the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown, whose rough-hewn, cloistered personality bleeds into every scene. Affleck and the rest of the cast nail the Beantown accent -- with such success, in fact, that I occasionally had trouble understanding them -- and the great cinematography (by Robert Elswit) captures the hardscrabble charm of the mean streets.

Affleck's always had screen presence, and with his hair starting to gray a little, it gives him a bit of authority he didn't have during his matinee idol days. "The Town" isn't quite as good as Affleck's directorial debut, the terrific "Gone Baby Gone," but clearly this is the work of a guy who knows how to tell stories.

Imagine what he could do with something a bit more original.

3 stars out of four

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