Is Ben Affleck’s directorial follow up to Gone Baby Gone a Good Will Hunting or a Gigli?
There probably hasn’t been a more derided Hollywood actor than Ben Affleck in recent years. He’s hardly helped himself by starring in such risible mess as Gigli and Pearl Harbor but in truth, he’s probably not starred in more flops than your average star but as the saying goes, the bigger they are, the harder they fall and he has consistently been one of Hollywood’s A List since 1997’s Good Will Hunting. A spell behind the camera in 2007 saw him confound expectations, and his critics, with the stunning Gone Baby Gone and three years later, he’s returned to directorial duties with The Town which not only proves that Gone Baby Gone wasn’t a one-off but also this: Affleck’s back.
Set in Charlestown – a place which produces more bank and armoured car robbers per square mile than anywhere else in the U.S. according to an opening title card – The Town revolves around a group of robbers, led by Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck). A blistering opening bank heist ends with the gang taking a hostage in the form of bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) but after letting her go, they discover that she lives in Charlestown and get worried that she could identify them. Fearful of what Jem (Jeremy Renner) means when he says he’ll deal with her, Doug keeps tabs on Claire but ends up falling for her. What the gang don’t realise is that FBI Special Agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm) is already on their trail.
Following Gone Baby Gone was never going to be an easy task but thankfully Affleck didn’t decide to sell out with a commercial 12A summer blockbuster. While it lacks the emotional and moral gut punches of his debut, The Town is still very much an adult movie with the performances driving the film on, instead of being a side-thought to the next action sequence. With the help of the razor-sharp script, co-written by Affleck, Peter Craig and Aaron Stockhard, performances are flawless across the board and, more importantly, believable. The central romance could easily have become cliché-o-clock with Affleck’s robber-with-a-conscience and Hall’s damaged damsel but the two manage to steer it away from stereotypes and into something that feels real.
It’s a pattern followed by the rest of the cast with all of them nailing the unmistakable Boston drawl, albeit with added Charlestown characteristics, and adding depth to characters that could have become cardboard cut-outs in less capable hands. It helps that all of the characters live in the world of grey despite seemingly having black (robbers) and white (cops) roles which immediately adds ambiguity, especially effective with Hamm’s FBI agent who often seems as capable of violence, if not more so, as the robbers. The main credits will go the main trio of Affleck, Renner and Hall but the supporting cast warrant just as much praise. Particular stand-outs are Blake Lively, who deserved much more screen time as Jem’s put-upon sister Krista who can’t seem to catch a break, and Pete Postlethwaite’s menacing turn as the only blacker-than-black character, Fergus Colm.
Affleck is careful not to do a complete 180 though and leave his crime drama completely bereft of action by focussing too much on the drama though and The Town delivers three exceptional set pieces. This is not action in the Michael Bay school of quick cuts sense but stylish, old-school Hollywood action where, shock horror, you can actually tell what’s going on and the perfect example of this is the mid-movie car chase. Despite forgoing the frenetic handheld camera action that has blighted most action films since The Bourne Identity and instead focussing on wide shots and coherent, but not lethargic, editing, the sequence is no less thrilling or adrenaline-pumping thanks to David Buckley and Harry Gregson-Williams’ pulsating score combined with the fact that you can feel every collision because of the use of practical stunts, afforded by the fact that the main characters are in disguise.
However, there is an overarching sense that everything is just a bit too straightforward. It’s not so much a case of style over substance, but there is very little on offer to surprise the viewer so, despite avoiding the pitfall when it comes to the characters, things appear to be a bit too conventional with elements, such as the ‘all-or-nothing’ final heist, apparent in almost every other crime drama. Romantic sub-plot aside, there’s not as much emotional resonance with some of the characters either, not helped by the fact that two of the gang are barely focussed on, especially apparent in the otherwise stunning final shoot-out where you realise you maybe don’t care about them being in peril as much as you should.
This isn’t nitpicking of sorts; these are elements that could prove to be the film’s downfall to certain viewers but the majority probably won’t care when it’s all as well made as this. A refreshingly mature film, The Town confirms Ben Affleck, yes Ben Affleck, as one of the strongest upcoming directors in Hollywood with a 2 for 2 record so far. It would be nice to see him out of Boston for his next turn but when it results in films as enjoyable and electrifying as this, who are we to complain. Let’s just hope a Gigli doesn’t appear on his directing resume any time soon though.
Stills © Warner Bros
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