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Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Town



"My Sunny Days..."

The Town is an entertaining, well-made, crowd-pleasing crime thrillah, with terrific performances from a talented cast, all steeped in local Bahston colah. In his sophomore directing effort, Ben Affleck creates a Boston-based version of Heat; a story of bank robbers, the lawmen trying to catch them, and the women who fall for them. If it falls short of Heat (Michael Mann's LA-based epic) or The Departed (the Boston crime epic directed by Martin Scorsese), it's because The Town isn't so much a love letter to Boston or Boston crime but a love letter from director Ben Affleck to the actor Ben Affleck.

Affleck, who co-wrote The Town, casts himself in the lead role as the Most Noble Bank Robber in Boston. In the pulse-pounding Cambridge bank robbery that opens the picture, Affleck and his crew take bank manager Rebecca Hall hostage when they make their escape. His ticking time bomb of a best friend Jeremy Renner wants Hall rubbed out lest she is able to identify them to the FBI. Affleck, who was so gentle and compassionate with Hall during the bank robbery because deep down, he's just a really nice guy who wants to change, becomes smitten with the lovely Hall. He starts to romance her and entertain the idea of "getting out of Bahston for the first time in my life" and not be a bank robber anymore. What better way to do it than with the love of the girl whose bank he robbed?

Though her new fellah knows a lot about the punishments for larceny and felony offenders (because he says he watches "a lot of CSI and Bones", big laugh), Hall is too distracted by Affleck's broad shoulders, square cleft jaw, and "aw shucks, I'm just a Townie who breaks rahcks for a livin', I can't believe I get to be with a girl like you" demeanor to realize he's part of the crew that robbed her bank. There's a subplot about Hall noticing the Fighting Irish tattoo on the back of Jeremy Renner's neck that the movie belabors but nothing comes of it. The resolution to their relationship takes the expected turn when Hall finally realizes her new boyfriend is the very same guy who held her up at gunpoint and traumatized her. The final moments between them is a swipe right out of Heat, when Ashley Judd spoke in code on the phone to Val Kilmer, confirming she still loves him but telling him to walk away because the cops are waiting to spring a trap.

Besides being a charming local boy who's sweet to the ladies, Affleck is also a master of crime. He's the brilliant strategist of his crew, he's a master of disguise, and he's certified to drive any vehicle, including city buses. Affleck operates by Grand Theft Auto video game rules where he can enter any vehicle at any time and immediately drive it away, usually right in front of the cops staring right at him. In his closet, Affleck has uniforms from every city agency: Boston Police, MBTA, EMTs, etc. I think had a cowboy costume and an astronaut suit in there too, in case he and his crew ever want to take down NASA. When not wearing uniforms illegally, Affleck favors jackets and hoodies from every local Boston sports team, laying it on real thick that he's Boston through and through ("The Sox got rocked!"). 

Affleck has a complex back story riddled with secrets. He was abandoned by his mother at the age of six, which is a funny story all the old Townies like to tell; how little Ben wandered around Charlestown looking for his missing ma when she was dead of a drug overdose. He could have been a pro hockey playah but he washed out. His father Chris Cooper is in the clink and has to "die five times before he can get out". Affleck also is the reason Jeremy Renner spent nine years in prison for killing a man; he did it to save Affleck's life. Slinking around the local bahs as a prostitute and drug mule is Blake Lively as Renner's sister. She used to be Affleck's girl and has a kid who isn't Affleck's whom Renner seems to think Affleck should help raise anyway, though Affleck disagrees. Affleck's father worked as a bank robber for the local crime lord/florist Pete Postlethwaite, who won't let Affleck walk away from this life of crime; The Town makes it very clear who the real bad guy is (not Ben).

In the traditional sense, the real hero of The Town is Jon Hamm as the FBI lawman trying to nail Affleck and his crew. Hamm creates a crime fighting action hero version of Don Draper from Mad Men, complete with a shot of him in his suit drinking whiskey in his office. (My TV bias will show as I found myself firmly rooting for Hamm and his partner Titus Welliver, the Man in Black from Lost.) Compared to knowing every last little thing about Affleck, we find out nothing about Hamm besides that he's the lead FBI agent on the case of Affleck's crew. Still, Hamm is intelligent enough in the movie to anticipate Affleck's movements and coerce Lively to turn informant for the FBI. Hamm manages to play the two women in Affleck's life against him but still comes up empty.

Hamm's great victory is taking down Jeremy Renner with a hail of gunfire on Boylston Street outside of Fenway Park, but Affleck eludes his grasp. The whole movie seems to build towards Hamm and Affleck having at it for all the marbles but this moment never materializes. We instead have to settle for Hamm's only face to face confrontation with Affleck where Affleck cooly rebuffs Hamm's intimidation attempt and turns the tables on the Feds, strutting out of the JFK building scott free. Oh, that Ben. How do you like dem apples?

Though I had no idea, even as a native Bostonian, that Charlestown is "the bank robbery capital of America", the city of Boston itself is showcased wonderfully in The Town. The physical moments of the characters make geographic sense according to how the city is laid out, which isn't often the case with movies set in Boston. Hamm, to his credit, makes no attempt at the Bahston accent, representing the hundreds of thousands of people who live in the city but don't speak like that. Almost every other actor affects the infamous local accent and Lively has a few moments where I absolutely had no idea what she was saying. I found myself reaching for a non-existent remote to turn the subtitles on during Lively's scenes. The bank robberies, especially the grand finale of taking down "the cathedral of Bahston", Fenway Park, for $3-million, are staged thrillingly.

There sure doesn't seem to be a point to being a bank robber from Charlestown. Affleck and his crew meticulously plan out their heists with sophisticated methods (torching their getaway cards, bleaching the banks' shelves to destroy DNA) and get away with hundreds of thousands of dollars, but no matter how much they steal, they still seem to be poor Townies eating and drinking in the same dive bahs in Chahlestown. We see Renner blow his money on strippers and booze. Meanwhile, noble Affleck becomes a modern day Robin Hood who gives all of his money to Hall to help the poor children of the Town have a new ice skating rink. Affleck clearly and understandably saw there was no point in robbing banks until he's incarcerated or shot dead. 

And yet, Affleck's story, by all rights, should have ended with him six feet undah at the hands of the lawman Hamm, not forlornly pining for Hall while watching the sun set over the banks of Dawson's Creek. Affleck gets a second chance at a better life, but does he deserve one? In another town, one not made by Ben for Ben, justice would have been served.