Monday, September 20, 2010

Danny Goes to THE TOWN

THE TOWN Review:

- It was clear from Gone Baby Gone that Ben Affleck might have a real knack for directing. But while his first real directorial effort was solid but flawed, The Town easily cranks things up a notch - being much more than merely solid, and instead coming close to being flat-out great.

The Town is set in the roughneck neighborhood of Charlestown, a section of Boston with a uniquely high crime rate, particularly when it comes to armed bank robberies. As depicted in the film, it's a place where crime and vice seems to be encoded in the DNA of longtime residents, where seemingly decent people are drawn to the wrong side of the law - because of circumstance, upbringing, or simply because they don't know any better. The Town follows one such local, Doug MacRay (played by Affleck), who is the leader of a gang of armed robbers known for the outlandish masks they wear on each of their jobs (in the film, they go from creepy looking skeletons to nuns-with-guns). Doug seems to want out of his life of crime, but, even as more and more heat comes down on he and his crew, he keeps getting pulled back in. Doug's lifelong friend, James (Jeremy Renner), for one, has no intentions of going clean. However, Doug's life is severely complicated when he tails a woman who ended up as a hostage on the crew's most recent robbery. The woman (Rebecca Hall), a manager at the bank that Doug's group held up, doesn't realize that the new man she met at the laundromat is one of the same thugs who took her as a hostage - and somehow, the two fall into a relationship. And therein lies the central theme of the film - Doug has met a woman, his gang is being hunted by the cops, and he has every reason and motivation to leave his old life behind and attempt to start over. And yet, part of him is trapped - unable to escape the life of violence and vice that was handed down to him by a father who was a career criminal, by a town that didn't seem to want him to leave.

The bigger existential themes of THE TOWN are, I think, what elevate it beyond the level of the standard heist fare. Sure, the movie in some ways covers well-worn territory. But the film feels deeper and more substantive than others like it. Part of that is due to a punchy script, part due to the gritty realism and measured direction by Affleck. A lot of the credit for why the movie works though has to go to the kickass cast.

Affleck, for one, gives one of the better dramatic performances of his career - up there with his work in movies like Hollywoodland. I don't think Affleck's ever been a bad actor - just in some clunkers - but he's really good here, and I think it's a role that will make some people rethink his ability to be a serious leading man in a deep and dramatic film.

That said, I think it's Jeremy Renner who steals the film. Renner absolutely blew me away in The Hurt Locker, and he's now one of those guys who is so good that he can instantly elevate anything he's in. He is fantastic in The Town as James - the loose-cannon criminal who's both terrified of going back to jail after a nine year sentence, yet unable to see a life for himself away from crime and robbery. It's a dynamite performance from Renner, and, like The Hurt Locker, he's at the center of some gripping, emotional scenes and also some absolutely riveting action to boot.

The rest of the cast is also excellent. I was a big fan of Rebecca Hall in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and she does a nice job here - I think her vulnerability here as Claire goes a long way towards making her eventual romance with Doug more believable than it might have been otherwise. She's an actress who I think is going to get a lot of big parts from here on out. Speaking of which, I think a lot of people questioned how Blake Lively would fit into this cast, but she does a nice job as James' trashy sister, Krista. Lively still comes off as more teen drama queen than potential leading lady, but for this part, it works well. Oddly, The Town has a number of actors known for their parts on hit TV series in prominent roles. In fact, the two main agents chasing down Doug and his crew are played by Jon Hamm (Mad Men) and Titus Welliver (the Man In Black from Lost). Both do a nice job, with Hamm projecting dogged determination in finding his targets, and Welliver lending a world-weary cynicism to the part of Hamm's loyal #2. Meanwhile, the always-great Chris Cooper makes a strong impression as Doug's jailbird dad, who lays down some hard truths for his son. The inclusion of a guy like Cooper is just the kind of instant-gravitas-injection that helps put the film over-the-top on the intensity scale.

Now, if The Town was just a nice, quiet character study with a great cast, it still might not have risen above "solid." But The Town also has some terrific, balls-to-the-wall action sequences that really help take it to another level. Some of the chase scenes in this one are uber-intense, and directed with great flair by Affleck. Seriously, it was actually really refreshing to see fast-paced action that was still easy to follow and told a great story. I never thought I'd tell the likes of Michael Bay to take notes from Ben Affleck, but after The Town, I will say exactly that.

Now, as good as The Town was, I think it had a couple of plot issues that kept it from being a flat-out "A." For one, I just didn't 100% buy into the relationship between Affleck and Hall. Particularly later on in the film, it was a little hard for me to swallow the idea that a connection still existed between them, especially after certain revelations come to light. A couple other plot details just felt a little too sketchy for me - a slightly tighter script might have helped in that regard.

Otherwise, though, The Town definitely rises above the usual popcorn heist movie by putting the focus squarely on character and theme. There's still some badass action and a couple of great, "holy-$%@&" moments, but again, this is a character study more than anything else, and that's to the movie's great credit. It's definitely worth taking a trip to The Town.

My Grade: A-

*And by the way, one sidenote about the movie and its impressive box-office take over the weekend. The Town is a great film, and I'm happy that it did well and made money. But, I'm sick of some of the talk out there about how this movie is a win for "adults" at the movies. The Town is an excellent crime movie, but it's not any better or more worthy of making money than any number of great films that we've seen in the last year. Because Inception has sci-fi elements it's not "adult?" Because Scott Pilgrim employs a hyperreal style of filmmaking it's only for teens? "Adult" movie now means a straight drama in a firmly real-world setting with no fantastical elements or heavy stylization? If that's true, then that's a pretty narrow definition of what is "adult." If you're trying to argue that there's been a dearth of high profile, serious-minded dramas in theaters, and that The Town is a welcome return for the genre - then hey, that's a valid point. I just object to classifying certain movies as adult and certain movies as being something else. No need to backhandedly demean other types of movies for the sake of praising this one.

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