Simple, focused, and perpetually entertaining, Ben Affleck’s “The Town” plays like the best Michael Mann film in years. It stands apart in the summer spectrum, maybe because the MO for action in 2010 seems to so heavily favor high concept; Affleck’s second directorial effort is like a breath of fresh air.
But how could he hope to score the fickle fanboys’ attention without the dream-spelunking of “Inception,” the gratuitous violence of “The Expendables,” or the retro gaming nostalgia of “Scott Pilgrim”? For one, he sidestepped those direct competitors by releasing his film on the very last Friday of the season. Second, he instilled the film with one vital element the other three lack: heart.
Sure, “Pilgrim” is a romance, but the relationships in “The Town” resonate on a deeper level. Affleck plays protagonist Doug MacRay, a brilliant bank robber who becomes romantically involved with one of his prior hostages against his better judgment. Claire (Rebecca Hall) recognizes neither his face (which was masked during the theft) nor his voice. The scenario makes for an inherently suspenseful courtship, playing our desire to see a ‘happily ever after’ against our knowledge that Doug cannot sustain his lie indefinitely.
Grounded by the simple, relatable contrast of Doug’s optimism for a brighter future and his dim present, “The Town” is free to alternate between elaborate heist sequences and intimate conversations. It works because Affleck understands what so few filmmakers seem to: that something real needs to be at stake for our characters. For Doug, it’s his relationship. For his buddy James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner), that risk is hard jail time; the character has already served nine years.
We care about these people, and it is for that reason the action sequences deliver. There may not be anything as impressive as in the final forty minutes of “Inception,” or as many explosions as “The Expendables” was packing, or even the creativity of “Scott Pilgrim,” but Affleck outshines them all with straight good storytelling and classic one-upmanship.
There are three heists in “The Town,” each more elaborate than the last. Costumes play a major role in all three, ranging from cliché (skeleton masks) to bizarre (nun habits) to ingenious (Boston police uniforms). In terms of suspense, Affleck expertly paces himself. The first heist leads to Doug’s involvement with Claire, whose relationship ups the stakes for a considerably messier second outing. It devolves into a citywide car chase with the police and FBI in hot pursuit. The tension is ratcheted even higher for the final heist, which takes place at a locale described as the “Cathedral of Boston” and concludes with the largest, most visceral action scene in the movie.
My gripes are few and far between. “The Town” does feel perhaps a little longer than it needs to, and the outcome of Doug’s last job and his relationship with Claire feels somewhat inauthentic by comparison to the pragmatic whole. Nevertheless, neither issue amounts to more than a minor grievance, and Affleck concludes the film on a beautiful, somber moment that emphasizes his strength as a director.
“The Town” is one of the most pleasant sleeper surprises of the year. Like Anton Corbijn’s “The American,” it offers a grown-up alternative to action, a compelling cast of characters, and confident filmmaking. That Ben Affleck, who was once a punchline in comparison to his accomplished buddy Matt Damon, has emerged so triumphantly as a director in the past three years is a development few if anyone saw coming. Both his vision for this film and his performance therein are incredible, and “The Town” is the best, most compelling action film of 2010.
Whatever project Affleck takes on next, his ability to perpetually entertain isn’t going to expire anytime soon.