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“The Town”: Ben Affleck is a bank robber seeking redemption 

Wednesday, Sep 15 2010

Directing himself as a verifiable big-movie lead after some time in supporting-actor Triple-A ball, director and star Ben Affleck models a full line of warm-up suits to play Doug MacRay, a second-generation blue-collar stickup man, brains of his four-man bank crew.

The setting is Charlestown, the square-mile majority-Irish Boston neighborhood that shares a peninsula with Cambridge, half-gentrified, still identified in the tagline as the "bank robbery capital of America." MacRay's crew is among the best — or the most theatrical, judging by its costume selection, coming out like an Ozzfest second-stage act in purple-dreadlocked skull masks or nuns' habits.

The Town is based on Chuck Hogan's 2004 novel, Prince of Thieves (set, unlike the movie, in 1996, when Charlestown-affiliated heists were actually at their height). In its first chapter, the book has MacRay "tearing off his jumpsuit as if he were trying to shed his own criminal skin." Already reconsidering the life he's living — he's AA-pledged, sipping soda while his boys get wrecked as always — MacRay finds more motive to change in his tentative relationship with Claire (Rebecca Hall), one of the Prius-driving yuppies who've started to rent up newly chic Charlestown. Unbeknown to her, he is the same guy who recently stormed her bank and held her hostage; their affair begins as he follow-up-stalks her, and they meet-cute at a neighborhood laundromat. Because Hogan's novel is a character study of a gifted, low-bred ne'er-do-well with dark secrets, redeemed by a clean middle-class cutie, it's easy to see its appeal for Will Hunting's cocreator — who has since acquired a taste for big-fireball action, very freely indulged here.

Conspiring against MacRay's regeneration are his on-the-block loyalties. There's Jem (Jeremy Renner), his best friend from second grade and lieutenant, increasingly a loose cannon on jobs, and Jem's sister, Krista (Blake Lively, slumming in hoop earrings), an OxyContin-slinging slattern whom Doug still takes upstairs sometimes. And demanding more than apology for Doug's crimes is Agent Frawley (Jon Hamm), the head of an FBI bank-job task force, presiding over spiffy procedural scenes, trying to find a crack in the Irish omerta.

Part of this is attempted through cocky-flirty interrogations of Doug's women, some of The Town's variously successful actor duets. The interclass Doug-Claire-Krista triangle is the stuff of High Sierra, Some Came Running ... except that Lively substitutes runny eyeliner for yearning, while Affleck and Hall do not, as they say, set the screen on fire, having little time for play outside the personal confessions they're forever unloading on each other ("My brother died on a day like this ..."). Broad, stolid Affleck does more with macho pathos, goaded by Renner's shanty-Irish tough Jem, in-your-face with his squelched mug; he's fantastic ambushing Doug on a date, the smirking ghost his of Townie past. Also indelible is Pete Postlethwaite — ratlike, bandy-armed, complexion like the penny left in Coca-Cola overnight — in the small part of neighborhood boss Fergie Colm, who runs his operation from a florist's shop, owning the screen for the time it takes him to brutally trim a rose.

The Town is a scrupulously location-scouted, aggressively Boston movie. Space between scenes is filled with what amounts to a complete helicopter tour down the River Charles — interruptions adding to the movie's oddly compartmentalized feel. It's difficult to connect the film's characters to the action figures of a major set piece inside Fenway, or the car chase ricocheting through the narrow red-brick streets of the North End. Picturesque qualities aside, Boston's recent popularity as a location has, I suspect, much to do with its status as refuge for a viable street-tough urban poor — who're white, and more box-office bankable ("They think there's no more serious white people," Lively says, white as snow if not viably serious). Tallying up the films shot in, say, black Roxbury won't take much time.

Clocking in at a heavy two hours, The Town does not end before Affleck wears a snicker-inspiring introspective beard. If for this alone, it misses on the big emotional gut-punch — but it's good enough at least that you wish it was better.

About The Author

Nick Pinkerton


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