The Town, Ben Affleck’s second directorial outing after the impressive Gone Baby Gone, has a job on its hands. Sure, it’s about bank robbers, but the job isn’t the ‘job’. Rather, it’s the challenge of giving us something new. Because the thing about telling a story about bank robbers is that everyone’s been there already.
We’ve had banks robbed by surfers, by men for money to pay for their boyfriend’s sex change, by Bill Murray dressed as a clown, and by, most unlikely of all, Kim Basinger. Michael Mann’s been there, done that. Three times.
So, with all the history to overcome, you’d expect Affleck to pull a fast one, right? A plot twist. A last minute reveal, perhaps. Wrong. The most surprising thing about The Town is how conventional it is. It’s simply a story about bank robbers in Boston. And people weighed down by their past. And redemption. And, well, you get the message. There’s more to it.
The Town works terrifically well as a pure heist film. It has an immediacy and urgency that’s riveting. In the space of two films, Affleck has become an action director to rival Kathryn Bigelow. The film’s three set pieces, spaced out like a summer blockbuster would its own, have the visceral thrill of Point Break‘s. They also have a crunching brutality, the rat-a-tat rhythm broken up by moments of silence that then give way to a sudden burst of violence. Action junkies will not go home disappointed.
But the film plays just as well as an intimate drama. Affleck’s screenplay, co-written with Peter Craig and his Gone, Baby, Gone collaborator Aaron Stockard, brings the archetypes out to play – the determined FBI Agent (Jon Hamm), the violent best friend (Jeremy Renner), the career criminal father (a fleeting Chris Cooper), the town kingpin (an Oirish Pete Postlethwaite) – yet gives them subtle shades. They feel lived in. Maybe not Postlethwaite (he’s a little too broad), but certainly Affleck’s Doug MacRay, a man tethered to a life of crime, yet desperate to escape it.
If that sounds too heavy, it isn’t. Affleck’s punchy direction lends The Town a swagger that moves it forward at a terrific pace. It means there’s barely enough time to think about the clichéd plot (this is another story about that fateful ‘one last job’), but plenty of it to enjoy the beats in between the action.
Because, as much as The Town is both action and drama, it’s also a touching love story. Just with added semi-automatic weapons. In fact, it’s at its best when Affleck and Rebecca Hall share the screen. They don’t have the sizzling chemistry of George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in Out Of Sight, but it’s just as winning and even more believable.
Affleck gives Doug a hangdog charm and a nice line in underplayed humour, while Hall’s smile could light up Boston’s Fenway Park, wherein the film reaches its climax.
To get there it has to sacrifice Blake Lively’s Krista, sister to Renner’s Jem and more of a plot device to up the ante than fully fleshed out character. Yet, there’s so much right with the rest of the film that it’s hard to bear a grudge.
Gone Baby Gone ended with a moral humdinger. The Town wraps things up a little neater, perhaps too neat, but it still leaves you wondering what happens to these characters when the credits roll and the lights go up. I can’t think of many other films that have done that this year, while having offered so much more beforehand.