Town, The

A Lifestyle of Crime

Main Cast: Ben Affleck, Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Hall

Director: Ben Affleck

I have to admire the courage of actors who choose not only to direct, but to direct themselves.  Some undoubtedly consider it more foolish than courageous and they have a good point.  After all, how does one tell oneself that one sucks?  Ben Affleck had a nice directorial debut with Gone, Baby, Gone, but makes the mistake of taking on the lead role in his second project, the film adaptation of Chuck Hogan’s Prince of Thieves, re-titled The Town.

The movie opens by giving us some data about the Charlestown area of Boston and its propensity for producing bank robbers.  It’s a family business there, generation after generation being trained in the fine art of the bank heist.  Affleck stars as Doug, the brains behind a group of Charlestown robbers who have successfully hit several armored cars and a couple of banks.

During the bank heist that opens the film, the most unstable member of the crew decides they need a hostage for insurance.  Gem grabs bank manager Claire, who is released, terrified, when they know they’re clear of the bank.  It becomes Doug’s job to make sure that she isn’t a threat as the FBI zero in on the crew.  As usual, women mean complications and Doug is caught between his messy past, his current loyalties and his wish for a different life.

Most of the performances here are good.  Round that up to outstanding for Jeremy Renner as Gem.  We know from his every action that he is a ticking time bomb – he’s impulsive and angry and not at all suited to the life of a long-term successful thief.  Kudos also to Rebecca Hall as Claire.  It isn’t easy to convincingly be “the girl who ruins everything” but she takes the rather meager role she’s given and makes us care for her character and the life she’s trying to live.  Adequate but not outstanding are Blake Lively as the pathetic woman scorned (a completely thankless role) and John Hamm as FBI Agent Frawley, absolutely intent on stopping this crew.

The unfortunate weak acting link is Ben Affleck.  He co-wrote and directed the film very well; he should have been smart enough to cast a really good leading man.  His Doug is primarily uninteresting, with a narrow range of emotions that limits our ability to feel anything for the man.  His accent is borderline ridiculous – if you close your eyes he frequently sounds like Adam Sandler and it’s not only distracting but diminishes the character further by making him into a caricature.

The action scenes are quite fun and more plentiful than I expected.  The crew pulls several jobs and each carries both some dramatic tension and a little escapist fun.  They’re violent as all get out, but in context they’re both well directed and well executed.

One basic problem with the movie as a whole is that it’s hard to empathize with any of the crew.  With Claire, yes, but not with Doug or Gem or any of the other men.  It’s just hard to give a rat about a bunch of guys who terrorize people and rip them off regardless of whether they plan to change.  The simple fact is that they are who they are by choice – nobody forced them to be bank robbers regardless of familial or cultural influence.  They aren’t good guys and Affleck doesn’t give a good enough performance for us to believe in his heart of gold.

Overall, I liked The Town a lot more than I expected, but was disappointed in some of the decisions made by the filmmakers.  It’s an interesting story about cultural expectations, second chances and bank heists.  But it’s also got a wooden main actor who can’t emote and a basic premise that doesn’t quite supply enough goodness in its characters to overcome that acting failure.  The Town is generally entertaining, if not at all uplifting, and the terrific performance of Jeremy Renner makes me push it up from three stars to four.

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