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Review: ‘The Town’

Ben Affleck Directs Himself

Ben Affleck and Jeremy Renner are bank robbers in

Credit: Warner Brothers

Above: Ben Affleck and Jeremy Renner are bank robbers in "The Town."

Both the Affleck boys have films they have directed in theaters this weekend. Ben directs himself in "The Town" (opened September 17 throughout San Diego).

“The Town” opens with this statistic: “There are over 300 bank robberies in Boston every year. And a one-square-mile neighborhood in Boston, called Charlestown, has produced more bank and armored car robbers than anywhere in the U.S.”

That’s an interesting fact and one that Affleck almost spins into an interesting film. This is Affleck’s second outing as a director, his first being “Gone Baby Gone," which starred his little brother Casey. Now he directs himself in a contemporary crime thriller. As a filmmaker, he has smartly picked films set in and around the Boston area where he grew up, and his knowledge of the area has allowed him to find fresh ways to film and use the locations.

In “The Town,” Affleck plays Doug MacRay, a second and possibly even third generation bank robber. Apparently he once had a shot at a NHL career but blew it. Now he masterminds bank robberies with the likes of Jem (Jeremy Renner), another local boy that Doug views as his brother. But the two men are very different. Doug tries to think things through and make smart choices but Jem is hot-tempered and impulsive.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Warner Brothers

Jeremy Renner plays Jem in "The Town." This shot pretty sums up his fate and the fact that he's trapped and with no escape.

Tensions increase after their latest job in which Jem briefly takes bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) hostage. When they discover she lives in their own Charlestown area, Jem is tempted to get rid of her. But Doug preaches a wait and see attitude. The only problem is that Doug decides to enter Claire’s life in order to watch over her and of course he falls in love. Spending time with someone whose life is so different from his own naturally makes Doug re-evaluate some of his choices and prompts him to make some career changing decisions. Complicating matters, is the fact that FBI Agent Frawley (Jon Hamm) is closing in on the bank robbers, and that’s making Jem even more dangerous and jumpy than before.

“The Town” isn’t a bad film. But it is a routine and predictable one. So depending on your expectations, you might enjoy it or feel disappointed. You pretty much know how this story will play out from early on with some characters marked for redemption and others doomed to a tragic fate. Whether you like the film or not may depend on how patient you are watching Affleck led us down a familiar path to its predetermined end.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Warner Brothers

Rebecca Hall plays a bank employee held hostage by robbers in "The Town."

As you might expect from an actor-turned-director, the film gets strong performances from some of the cast members.. Standing out is Hall as Claire. Hall’s Claire is a fragile figure among all these tough men, and she conveys her character’s fears and vulnerabilities superbly. Hall's performance is the one piece of perfection in the film. Chris Cooper (as Doug’s father) and Pete Postlethwaite (as a veteran crook the boys have to pay their respects to) also convey total believability as men that have arrived at two very different fates. Renner, though, falls into some clichés as the guy who’s wound too tight and you know he’s just a time bomb waiting to explode. As for Affleck, his performance is so steady and bland that it almost flat lines.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Warner Brothers

Ben Affleck directing Jon Hamm in "The Town"

As a director, Affleck handles the action of the robberies with pedestrian predictability. The one thing he does do well is to let us see the Boston-Charleston area in fresh ways, as in a car chase that takes us down tiny roads rather than big multi-lanes streets more typically found in action films. The robbery scenes move quickly but without much consequence for the violence. The robbers spray semi-automatic gunfire everywhere but no one seems to die. Doug swears to Claire that he’s never killed anyone but based on the gunplay on display that seems hard to believe. But then that’s one of the problems with the film, they keep trying to soften the crooks so they don’t seem so bad. Doug and Jem may rob banks, terrorize people, threaten law enforcement people, and steal money but they’re not bad boys, not really.

I don’t want to offer any spoilers but Doug, Jem, and Doug’s dad are all developed in ways that make them easier to like and make them seem less like hardened criminals. Doug’s depicted as a smart guy who tries to plan crimes where no one gets hurt so we’re supposed to accept him as a decent guy. Jem went to jail for killing someone but it wasn’t in the execution of a crime but rather to save Doug’s skin. So even though he has a violent temper and is dangerous, deep down he has a good heart and was just looking out for his buddy. And dad turns out to be hiding a tragic secret that also takes the edge off his character so that we can like him rather than condemn him.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Warner Brothers

Chris Cooper in "The Town"

Now if Affleck and company wanted to paint a picture of these bank robbers as guys who because of their socio-economic situation and lack of opportunities turned to crime as their only means of survival then that would at least give the film a point of view and a thematic backbone. It would also flesh these characters out and help to explain why there are generations of bank robbers in this one town. Or if he explored why this bank robbing trade keeps getting passed on from one generation to the next that would be interesting. But that interesting stat that initially hooks our interest is quickly discarded so that a formula crime thriller can play out.

Affleck, who also co-wrote the script, doesn’t make a decision to present the characters in any particular social light to give them a little depth. All he’s concerned about is making his characters appealing to the audience, and appealing to the point that the audience enjoys booing the FBI, and rooting for the crooks to escape. But that audience response seems to be a knee jerk reaction to Affleck’s glossing over of the characters. I mean we cheered Bonnie and Clyde because we saw them rob the big banks but let customers keep their own money; we cheered Al Pacino in “Dog Day Afternoon” because we really came to empathize with him; and we sympathized with the prisoners in “In the Name of the Father” because we saw the role politics and coerced confessions played in their convictions. But in the case of Affleck and his criminal co-horts, there just seems an unwillingness to explore any complexities. He simply wants us to like his character and to buy into the film’s romance because that makes the film easier to enjoy and therefore an easier sell at the box office. But that doesn’t necessarily make for a good film.

“The Town” (rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, some sexuality and drug use) provides a decently entertaining crime thriller with a dose of romance thrown in for good measure. It breaks no new ground, but rather covers familiar turf without innovation. The only thing fresh is the stat that acts as the catalyst for the story and unfortunately that interesting fact about Charlestown and its criminal population is never explored... Oh but I can say I loved one thing in this film: the creepy nun's masks.

Companion viewing: “Dog Day Afternoon,” “In the Name of the Father,” “Straight Time”

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