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The Town Review

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by Casimir Harlow Jan 3, 2011

    The Town Review

    Damn if Ben Affleck doesn’t effortlessly do ‘smug’. His arrogant demeanour is present in almost every single one of his films – occasionally working to their advantage (Hollywoodland, State of Play), but more likely impairing the chances of your liking him even in relatively enjoyable movies (The Sum of All Fears, Daredevil). It also doesn’t help that he’s picked some real duds over the last 20 years (Pearl Harbor, Paycheck, Reindeer Games) and sometimes it is really hard to remember that he’s the same guy who co-wrote and co-starred in the superior, Award Winning, Good Will Hunting. In 2007 he directed his first movie, the outstanding Gone, Baby, Gone, starring his brother Casey Affleck and the lovely Michelle Monaghan, and based on a novel by author behind Shutter Island. It was a quality debut directorial effort, which must have surprised a hell of a lot of people, and probably left most of them eagerly anticipating his next vehicle. The Town is Affleck’s sophomore directorial effort, another Boston-set crime drama like Gone, Baby, Gone, only focussing more on the criminal side of life. And this time Affleck is not just behind the camera, he also takes the lead too. Will he capture the same magic he pulled off with his debut, or will his chisel-jawed smugness seep through and spoil the proceedings? Read on to find out.

    “One blue-collar Boston neighbourhood has produced more bank robbers and armoured car thieves than anywhere in the world.”

    Doug MacRay is a Charlestown-born armed robber, with an elite crew of three: a driver, an electronics expert, and a volatile shooter, James Coughlin, who also happens to be his best friend since childhood. They are good at what they do, clinical in their operations, taking out a bank in a matter of seconds, and escaping clean. But, just in case, they take a hostage – bank teller Claire – setting her free once they are clear of the scene. Although she has little to identify them by, the FBI Agents assigned to the case are all over her for any assistance that she may give. And when it turns out that she is a fellow Charlestown dweller, the quartet decide that they should keep an eye on her just to see how much she knows. Doug volunteers for the job, but soon finds himself drawn into a relationship with her, complicating matters no end, as he finally finds something beyond life as an armed robber. With the FBI closing in, Doug is pressured to do ‘one last job.’ Will he be able to somehow turn things around, or will the world coming crashing down around him?

    The Town may have been based on a novel by Chuck Hogan, and may have been adapted for the screen and Directed by Ben Affleck, but it wears its ‘tribute to Heat’ badge proudly on its sleeves. Right from the opening few lines, echoing “it’s the bank’s money, it’s not your money”, to the score of the robbery scenes, through to most of the shootouts, the wild-card member of the crew, the reveal of the weak link in the story, and many of the other twists (although not all, just to keep you guessing), it’s Heat through-and-through, only set in gritty Boston rather than glossy L.A. Hell, they even have one of the crew watching Michael Mann’s modern classic crime epic on his flat-screen, reminding you that this professional bunch of armed robbers learned many of their skills from movies and TV: their in-and-out motto, their clinical and meticulous (often pre-emptive) disposal of all evidence, their tactics, and even some of their lines! You would be forgiven for thinking this was just a rip-off, but, despite all of these obvious comparisons, The Town manages to elevate itself to more than just a professionally-crafted homage to the genre classic.

    To this end I applaud Affleck. The material he had to work with here may not have been as original as on his debut Gone, Baby, Gone, but he still makes it feel gritty and natural, and he brings to his leading role a true sense of authenticity. He himself was born in the purportedly crime-ridden city of Boston, and you wonder how many of the character’s anecdotes are borne from his own knowledge. It further helps that he also parallels some of the background characteristics of anti-hero Doug – similarly having a problematic past with alcohol – and you get the sense that this was a very personal project for Affleck. Behind the camera he crafts an excellent, and very revealing voyage around these dangerous streets, bringing a sense of geography to the setting, an unyielding tension to the robberies, and perfectly staging the outstanding action sequences. But, ultimately, he succeeds best at bringing to this somewhat ostensibly clichéd crime drama a strong set of well-developed characters, of which he is just the tip of the iceberg.

    “I just want to say one thing. Just so we’re both very, very clear. You’re here today so I can personally tell you that you are going to die in federal prison. And so are all your friends.”

    The Hurt Locker’s Jeremy Renner is the flipside to Affleck’s anti-hero: more ‘anti’ than ‘hero’ – what Doug could have been, had he also served time already. Trigger-happy, volatile and possibly even psychotic, Renner excels at giving us a character we don’t like, but who we still find believable. He is loyal to the end, but unpredictable at every turn, and whilst Renner may borrow some fragments from his Oscar-nominated outing as a bomb disposal expert, here he is a ‘townie’ through and through. On the FBI side of things we have Mad Men’s John Hamm. He doesn’t have the presence (or volume) of Pacino’s driven Heat Detective, but he punches all the right buttons, and brings his best game, doing all he can to avoid falling into the usual cop pitfalls.

    But the real surprise is Brit actress Rebecca Hall, who was outstanding in the excellent Red Riding trilogy, a UK TV mini-series which is currently undergoing its requisite (but wholly unnecessary) Hollywood remake adaptation. Here she completes the complicated triangle of cop, robber and witness, and gives us one of the most naturally attractive, engaging female lead characters of the year. You can see it all in her face; her diffusing smile, whether out of happiness, fear, or even sadness; and her charming, honest manner. She’s lovely; an unconventionally glamorous new leading lady, and I hope what we see here is just a taste of what will become of her in Hollywood.

    “Look, I gotta’ die five times before I get out of here... but I’ll see you again. This side or the other.”

    We get no end of cameos as well, including Chris Cooper on form as Doug’s prison-bound father, but some of them don’t work out as well as the leads: Pete Postlethwaite tries to cram a whole movie’s worth of character into 10 minutes’ screentime (and his final reveal to Dough is totally unnecessary, and clearly made more sense in the original book, where the character would have no doubt been developed over a much longer period of time) and Ugly Betty’s Blake Lively brings her slumming-it character to life like a younger, and much prettier Ellen Barkin, but unfortunately takes the mumbling Boston drawl to the next level, often leaving her words barely comprehensible. She appears to have perfected a way of speaking without moving her mouth. Still these barely register as missteps in a taut, action-packed crime drama which prides itself on delivering both character substance and solid action.

    Affleck certainly has proven himself as a capable Director with this solid second outing (and also reminded us of his mettle on the acting side of things) and really brings some nice touches to the piece: killing the sound entirely on a couple of occasions to add significance to the visuals, underplaying Harry Gregson-Williams’ decent score (which has a nice theme to it, even if it doesn’t really hit home as massively memorable) in order to emphasise the realism, and offering us a nice insight into not just the bank robbers and their hunters, the FBI, but also the victims in the whole crime arena. He may have just proven his love for the still far superior Heat, with this lengthy, respectful tribute, but he has also – in turn – given fans of said masterpiece a perfectly competent, thoroughly engaging alternative to enjoy in its own right. It’s not quite a great movie, and it will certainly never be a classic, but it is still well worth your time.

    “You know, people get up every day, they do the same thing. They tell themselves they’re gonna’ change their life one day and they never do. I’m gonna’ change mine.”

    Extended Cut

    Director Ben Affleck makes it clear in his commentary that the theatrical version of The Town is his “Director’s Cut”, but he has included here a longer Extended Cut for fans to enjoy. Honestly, if you’re new to the film, then you should just pick the theatrical version, not just because it’s the Director’s preferred choice, but also because it’s a superior cut. Fans of the movie will enjoy the Extended Edition, but mostly because it offers more from the characters they already like, and not because it gives us a better movie.

    The theatrical cut already runs at a whopping 125 minutes, and the Extended edition takes this to 153 minutes, not only extending existing scenes with extra dialogue and action, but also offering alternately shot scenes, and further adding completely new segments into the mix (these are highlighted by a helpful optional icon, although it is not the most accurate symbol, often kicking in too late, and staying around far too long). There are some moments where the extensions definitely work well, and add to the proceedings, but there are also some moments where things just feel repeated, rather than smoothly expanded on. And, of course, a few of the additions don’t work at all.

    Firstly, on the plus side, we get some much-needed extended scenes with the FBI agents, further developing these rather limited characters. We also get more from the armed robbers, Doug and James getting a bit more background, along with their mysterious backer, The Florist. There’s also a great, gratuitous money-laundering scene, which sees the crew with their faces in the asses of a bunch of strippers (who actually strip!); a great moment where Doug flips out and shoots up an abandoned subway train; and an extended, more violent, version of the ‘revenge’ segment where Doug takes James to get some personal payback on some drug dealers (reminiscent of Denzel Washington’s pairing up with Don Cheadle in Devil in a Blue Dress).

    “I need your help. I can't tell you what it is, you can never ask me about it later, and we're gonna’ hurt some people.”

    The majority of the new footage, however, is there to build the relationship between Doug and Claire, but whilst some scenes are quite sweet (the stolen yacht moment is a nice touch), the dialogue is often repeated unnecessarily later on. Finally there’s an extra story arc establishing a massively pointless sort-of love angle between the lead FBI Agent and the witness, Claire.

    All in all, my biggest problem with the Extended Edition is it sends the anecdotal quota of the movie into overdrive.The Town is already packed with anecdotes – every single character seems to have one – but the Extended Edition goes too far, and they just end up feeling contrived. Seriously, nobody gives straight answers in this piece, they all just drift into somewhat long-winded stories, which feel like they have been prepared well in advance, rather than coming straight from the heart. Whilst the theatrical version just about gets away with this aspect, pushing to the brink of what can be swallowed, the extended edition brings all of the moments into the spotlight, and dilutes their impact, making them all feel clichéd. As I’ve stated, watch the Theatrical Cut first, then the Extended Edition for curiosity. And I think perhaps any subsequent revisits should also be for the Theatrical Cut too, as it is a better version.

    “If we get jammed up, we're holding court on the street.”