-- gritty, profane, suspenseful, and endlessly engaging.
Ben Affleck’s new film is all of these things, and it is indeed Affleck’s film since he co-wrote, directed, and stars in it. Before the film begins, a couple of news clips identifying Charlestown as the bank-robbing mecca of Boston appear on the screen. The opening shot, a sweeping aerial view of Boston, shows its beauty before zooming in on the working class section that is Charlestown – not much beauty, lots of crime. In fact, bank robbing or armored car robbing are commonplace activities. The criminals protect each other’s anonymity – kind of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation. It appears that most of the locals know who they are, but no one wants to be a rat.
Affleck portrays Doug MacRay, a member of a four-man team whose specialties are robbing banks and armored cars using Halloween type masks to hide their identities. They’re very good at what they do, but it’s clear that Doug has grown tired of the lifestyle and is searching for a new way to live. His chance appears unexpectedly when he falls for Claire, a bank manager whom they take as a hostage after forcing her to open the vault. Claire, beautifully acted by British actress Rebecca Hall (Vicky Christina Barcelona), represents the “normal” life that Doug longs for, not to mention a much classier companion than he’s used to.
Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) is a stand-out as Doug’s twitchy, sociopathic best friend and partner in crime, James Coughlin. He dominates every scene he’s in with intensity and unwavering focus. Equally impressive is Blake Lively (Gossip Girl) who plays James’s sister and Doug’s sometimes girlfriend. In a complete departure from the character she plays on television, she is all toughness and skankiness as the diamond-hard , coked-and boozed-up single mother whose inner pain all but screams from inside her.
The team’s nemesis is FBI agent Adam Frawley, played a bit unevenly by Jon Hamm (Mad Men). His character is as lacking in moral character as the men he pursues; he will resort to any kind of trickery and lies to nail his suspects. He’s no hero; he’s not really much different from the criminals he’s after in that lying and brutality are just means to an end. Two other veteran characters, Peter Postlethwaite and Chris Cooper, deserve mention. Postlethwaite is Fergus Colm, an aging Irish gangster who launders the team’s stolen money through his florist’s shop. He’s a completely menacing presence who’s determined to block Doug’s attempt to escape the “life.” Cooper plays Doug’s incarcerated father, Stephen MacRay. He is the picture of sagging, defeated sadness as he talks to Doug about trying to keep his place in the prison pecking order, still trying to exude some toughness and control when it’s obvious that he’s lost both.
The story’s twists and turns are punctuated by brutal scenes of violence and realistically harrowing car chase scenes. If you are offended by profanity, this is not your film. The “f-word” and all its variations are used too many times to count. I know it’s an attempt to be authentic dialogue-wise, but it gets tiresome after a while. There were a couple of plot developments that I had a hard time swallowing, particularly Claire’s willingness to strike up conversation with and agree to go out with a stranger (Doug) she meets in a Laundromat after she’s just experienced a terrifying abduction. Of course, the “stranger” is Doug who is trying to find out what she knows after the team discovers she lives in the neighborhood. Since he spoke to her several times when she was held hostage, she would have recognized his voice. I also thought that the ending felt contrived. I admit that I haven’t read the novel on which the film is based, Prince of Thieves, by Chuck Hogan, so it’s possible that this is the way the novel ends, too. Overall, the film is very well done. Crime/action film lovers will definitely enjoy it. Ben Affleck is good as Doug, but I couldn’t help wondering how his pal Matt Damon would have handled the part. Something tells me that just putting all of his energy into directing and not trying to carry the film as an actor might have made a positive difference. Oh well -- we’ll never know!
THE TOWN opens in theaters everywhere on September 17, 2010.