Like 2010’s Australian family crime drama Animal Kingdom, director Ben Affleck’s latest deals in a lot of stereotypical plot devices (or should we say “tried and true”?), and sometimes the glare is too much to handle. But other times, the movie darts off onto uncharted territory and it is in those times that The Town really succeeds. Altogether, despite its flaws, this is a very good movie. In a world where The Departed can win an Academy Award for Best Picture, there’s no reason that this movie shouldn’t have been nominated.
The story tells of a group of Boston boys who rob banks to get their kicks because, um, you know, rough neighborhood and all. We meet them on a job wherein the loose cannon of the bunch (played by Jeremy Renner, who now specializes in loose-cannon type roles) inexplicably takes a hostage. Since the girl could theoretically identify the group, despite never having seen their faces, it becomes clear that something must be done about her before the Feds get hold of her. Thus it is that Doug (Affleck), the leader of the band, determines to keep an eye on the girl and soon enough begins to them heartsick feelings of love.
Which is an interesting idea, as are the increasingly dangerous and risky cons that the gang gets itself into. As the FBI, led by one agent on a mission to take Affleck’s team down (played by Jon Hamm, of “30 Rock” fame) edges closer to finding the evidence to bring the game to an end, the stakes get higher and the action intensifies. It all culminates in a thrilling final act full of concealed identities, subtle exchanges, and sudden bursts of violence. Those moments especially are quite spectacular, delivering classic edge-of-your-seat thrills.
But then, it wouldn’t be a movie if the crimes didn’t grow ever more dangerous and seemingly impossible. Who wants to see a movie where the criminals become more cautious with each job they carry out and wait months between heists in order to let the heat die down? Bo-ring! Which is why we have Renner’s character, the most overtly cliched of the bunch. His existence is predicated on being extremely stupid and potentially psychotic, but he’s the driving force behind a lot of the action that happens on-screen. Well, him and the lone cop on the trail. The “one last job before retirement” thread appears here to no one’s surprise, and the final moments of the movie feel almost interchangeable with countless others, save for maybe the setting. And what drives the boys in Boston to their criminal ways? Why, daddy issues, of course.
Still, the movie is populated by actors who are the top of their game. Both Renner and Hamm are stand-outs, of course, turning tired tropes into interesting and intriguing characters. It would have been so easy to bomb it, to play into the roles as they were written, and it’s true that there are times when dialogue screeches in your ears like nails on a chalkboard (“Now you’re like a half-off sale at Big & Tall – every cop is in line”). But there are other times when everything comes together perfectly. I couldn’t help but think of Halle Berry’s painful delivery in X-Men of many of her lines, particularly one meant to be read as a joke but which she gave with a sense of profundity and purpose. There’s a moment where Hamm asks one of Affleck’s previous lovers, “How many diamond necklaces did he buy you?” The way that he subtly emphasizes the word ‘you’ there, it makes the line. It would have been so easy to fumble and emphasize a different word out of habit, but no. Or how about Renner’s line: “If we get jammed up, we’re holding court on the street.” The ferocity with which the line is spoken, it brings so much more to the proceedings. Similarly, Affleck is proving that he can hold his own as an actor. He got a bad reputation for doing a string of less-than-perfect flicks (as a Nicolas Cage fan, I can feel his pain), but the man is steadily climbing the rungs of a solid comeback.
And I can’t forget to mention expert character actor Pete Postlethwaite, who recently passed away. His role as “The Florist” is limited, but it’s a chilling and understated one nonetheless – a final appearance that neatly outdoes the year’s useless role in Inception and unused talent in Clash of the Titans. He is and will be sorely missed.
So yes, The Town wears its influences on its sleeve – its influences being a large assortment of crime movie go-to standards. It overcomes those limitations (and an occasionally dopey script) by taking advantage of some major players at the top of their game and by the expertise of a director who can help put enough atmosphere into the game to keep viewers enthralled. This is certainly no perfect film, but it is a very good one.