Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Town

The best part of Ben Affleck's The Town is the confirmation that Gone Baby Gone was neither fluke nor lightning in a bottle — Affleck is a filmmaker, and a damn good one, able to conjure suspense, stage action, command a gritty tone, and direct actors far beyond the skill of any of the men behind the shitty blockbusters he starred in over the last decade (refer to Pearl Harbor, Reindeer Games, Daredevil, Paycheck, The Sum of All Fears, and Armageddon for further details). Within two pictures his style has taken shape as something resembling a poor man's Departed-era Scorsese mixed with pre-Miami Vice Michael Mann, and for a director yet to hit forty you'd better believe I mean that as a compliment.

The Town centers on Boston bank robbery crew who are forced to take a hostage played by Rebecca Hall when a silent alarm gets tripped during a heist. They drop her off unharmed but even though they were wearing masks the volatile muscle of the crew played by Jeremy Renner gets nervous and pitches the idea of swinging back around to kill her and tie up loose ends. Ben Affleck, the relatively levelheaded brains of the outfit, instead follows her, makes contact to find out if she's been talking with the feds, and of course winds up falling in love.

For a while Affleck lives a double life as career criminal and Hall's boyfriend under constant threat of discovery by both her and the FBI team led by Mad Men's Jon Hamm out to shut his crew down, but when he starts to toy with the idea of getting out of the game his criminal employer (Pete Postlethwaite, who between supporting roles in this film, Clash of the Titans, and Inception I have seen in more movies this year than the last decade put together) is less than receptive to the idea. With threats made against Rebecca Hall's life if he fails to comply, Affleck is, as all cinematic criminals must be, roped into one last big score.

It's a clever setup that allows Affleck the filmmaker to dip his toe into many waters: The Town is part character study of its protagonist, part romance, and part action thriller. The romantic elements can be less than convincing, particularly as the narrative goes on, but as cops 'n' robbers pulp The Town is very successful. Affleck's last film Gone Baby Gone had violence and suspense but it didn't have anything that could be described as an action scene. The Town does. There's an awesome car chase through the narrow alleys of Boston's North End, multiple lengthy gunfights, and if I'm not mistaken there's even an explosion. Affleck is able to give fairly conventional cinematic sights like cars crunching into each other and a guy taking a bullet visceral impact that plenty of more experienced filmmakers could learn from, and after watching The Town the notion of him doing a full-tilt action picture is not at all unattractive.

I remain somewhat less sold on Ben Affleck the actor; he's nowhere near as distracting as when Tarantino or Shyamalan show up in their own stuff but I still fear that Affleck's acting career peaked with Chasing Amy back in 1997. I mean it not as an insult but as a suggestion of where his talent lies when I say that he should probably step behind the camera and stay there. I'm just never 100% convinced that he isn't delivering lines rather than actually being the Charlestown criminal he plays, and Gossip Girl's Blake Lively fairs worse still as his ex-girlfriend, never feeling like anything except a child playing dress-up.

But Rebecca Hall and Jon Hamm are completely naturalistic and convincing (and Hall continues to fall in that Christian Bale / Idris Elba / Hugh Laurie category of British actors who wind up putting on an American accent in almost every single role they do), while The Hurt Locker's Jeremy Renner effortlessly takes control of the whole film as Affleck's dumber and more violent sidekick, creating tension by merely stepping into the frame. The man has genuine star power, and Hollywood obviously realized it, casting him as the co-lead in Mission: Impossible IV and potential primary lead of the franchise after that. The Town makes him a very real contender for Best Supporting Actor.

A few years ago people were wondering whether or not Affleck was a filmmaker if not openly chuckling at the idea of him trying to be. Gone Baby Gone showed doubters where to stuff it (and, for the record, is still the better of the two films), while The Town confirms it. The question at this point is whether or not Affleck is capable of directing anything besides gritty crime dramas set in Boston. It'll be interesting to see what he does next — he could take The Town's financial success as a sign and make something even more action-oriented, or he make a swing for artier pastures. Either way, he's reached the level of filmmaker that I will see anything he does, and for the star of Gigli, that's a pretty impressive turnaround.

3 Stars out of 5

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