Monday, September 20, 2010

Take the Money and Run: THE TOWN

The Town, the second directorial effort from Ben Affleck, is more or less a standard cops-and-robbers thriller, albeit one tilted in favor of the robbers. Though it’s nothing revelatory, and riddled with plot holes, it’s the kind of movie that totally works as it unspools. Affleck stages some nice action, the performances are mostly stellar, and the cinematography from the great Robert Elswit is pristinely handsome.

The centerpiece of the film is a broad-daylight armored car robbery that is a crescendo into a symphony of squealing tires and bursts of gunfire. It’s not quite as good as a similar sequence in Michael Mann’s Heat, still the benchmark for modern urban shootouts, but it works well and ends not with a blast of senseless action but a quiet shot of a neighborhood cop, having stumbled upon the robbers just when they thought they were safe. He stares at them, and then, after a beat, slowly turns his head to literally look the other way.

This is a movie set amongst men with strong fraternal and filial loyalty in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston, an area that the opening text informs us produces more bank robbers per capita than anywhere else in the country. Our antihero is Ben Affleck, the son of a now-imprisoned bank robber (Chris Cooper) who is now a career criminal in his own right. He’s the mastermind of a team of robbers that works for a menacing florist (Pete Postlethwaite).

Affleck’s best friend and partner in crime is Jeremy Renner. They have an intense, long time bond. Renner spent nine years in prison for a murder committed in Affleck’s defense. Affleck has had an on-again-off-again relationship with Renner’s sister (Blake Lively). Renner’s the type of loose cannon criminal who enjoys his work a little too much. When Affleck shows up at his house and asks him for no-questions-asked help beating up some local thugs, Renner responds with one line: “Whose car are we taking?”

This occurs after Affleck returns from his date with a new girl in Charlestown (Rebecca Hall), a pretty assistant bank manager left shaken by a recent robbery in which she was kidnapped and left blindfolded on the beach. This very robbery opens the film and we immediately see how fraught with potential danger this budding romance is, since Affleck’s crew was responsible for the robbery. Because the guys wore creepy Skeletor masks for the duration, Hall doesn’t know how she actually first met her new beau. For all she knows, they met at the Laundromat. A suspicious FBI agent (Jon Hamm, in a slightly underwritten role) will learn more about this relationship, making the danger greater than mere potential for a broken heart.

There are narrative and emotional questions that could be raised, picking away at the film’s slick veneer, but the presentation is so glossily enjoyable it doesn’t quite matter in the moment. It works through the requirements of its genre with style and speed, making the rusty old formulas squeak to life once more. The fine cast works to bring this life, with Renner, especially, imbuing his character with such vibrancy that he nearly becomes the kind of supporting actor who carries the whole picture. He has a scene at an outdoor cafĂ© where he stops and chats with Affleck and Hall without knowing that Hall could identify the tattoo on the back of his neck and reveal their criminal secret. It’s a scene of great tension, partially because of the way Affleck, as director, blocks the shots, but even more so from the way Renner is so convincingly dangerous, so lively in his menacing unpredictability.

It is scenes like that, along with the fine action and solid performances, which allow the movie to add up to a reasonably enjoyable experience. It doesn’t break new ground, but Affleck’s confident, sturdy craftsmanship and Elswit’s images proving his greatness once again, help make the movie a little bit more than adequate. This is an entertaining two hours that goes by more or less painlessly.

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