In Theaters: The Town

The Town is an entertaining melodrama that wants to be the great criminal opera of Boston. The film's production is confident, and the movie boasts two outstanding Michael Mann-inspired action set pieces. But this leads us to the underlying problem - as co-written and directed by Ben Affleck, The Town is part The Friends of Eddie Coyle and part Heat, but it lacks the convincing, grounded character dynamics that made those earlier crime dramas classics. The Town's good cast is promising, but on balance the movie's script fails to meet its grand ambitions. Characters are flat, as are some of the film's key relationships. A decent B-grade thriller that wants to be one of the year's major films, The Town backslides into cliché and over-simplification just the way a hopped-up recidivist townie sticks up a corner store the day after getting out of stir.

Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) leads a quartet of bank robbers based in seedy Charlestown, part of Boston. Their latest caper has seen the group take a hostage - bank manager Claire (Rebecca Hall), who they release, blindfolded, after the heist. MacRay wants to keep his trigger-happy compatriot Jem (Jeremy Renner) from bugging out over Claire as a liability. So MacRay begins following her, and with Claire none the wiser as to MacRay's identity, the two begin an ill-advised romance that, naturally, leads to a variety of complications. Meanwhile, bloodhound FBI agent Frawley (Jon Hamm) is on the gang's trail - and applies increased heat as the group's jobs get bolder and more violent. The situation boils to a head, fueled not only by physical danger and the unpredictability of Jem, but by inter-generational bad blood (could it be any other way in Boston?) and by MacRay's desire to leave behind his life of crime.

Let me get a prejudice out in the open and out of the way: I have a tendency to stop believing in Ben Affleck as an actor every time he smiles. I don't know what it is, or exactly how to describe it. Things can be going along swimmingly, as they sometimes do in The Town, with Affleck hitting upon small moments of something like truth as Doug MacRay - even though his monologues are a little too articulate and one-liners too snappy for an under-educated career criminal from Charlestown. But when Affleck smiles, everything stops working, because that flat grin looks like a white cartoon triangle from Archie comics pasted over a human face.

But what really matters here is the fact that MacRay is underwritten, something that applies to the other principal characters as well, particularly Jon Hamm's Agent Frawley, who has absolutely no history at all and spends most of his significant screen time barking expository dialogue about Affleck's gang - none of which we need to hear, because we've been following them since the movie began. At one point Frawley refers to them as "the not-fucking-around crew." This and other Frawley dialogue sounds like an outtake from Heat, and the parallels to Michael Mann's film don't stop there.

The relationship that develops between MacRay and Claire echoes many aspects of the relationship between De Niro's Neil McCauley and Amy Brenneman's Eady in Heat. But in The Town, I never felt for one second that MacRay and Claire had any real chemistry bringing them together. In Mann's film, two lonely characters come together accidentally, even at the expense of McCauley's personal code - and safety. In The Town, MacRay and Claire are a mere plot device, and a transparent one at that. From the moment they meet, post-robbery, we know exactly where The Town is headed. It's hard to imagine anyone who has seen Mann's film, or any of a number of other such genre pictures, in anything like suspense over where the story is headed.

To Affleck's credit, he has put together two outstanding action sequences - one of which is a daringly-staged car chase through the tiny Colonial-era streets of Boston. He also elicits some good performances from supporting actors Jeremy Renner, Blake Lively, and Pete Postlethwaite. Each of these three actors brings something unique and special to their small but well-defined role.

In the end, The Town entertains, but does not convince. The film's conclusion, coming on the heels of a thrilling shoot-out, is an utter failure, to say nothing of the laughable final shots. But that's still a relatively minor point. Ultimately, the film is done in by characters who are malformed and unfinished. Had they been more compelling, the film's similarities to its better predecessors would have been harder to notice. Affleck has reached for great, grand drama here. He misses, but it's an admirable miss.

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