The Town

Director    Ben Affleck
Starring    Ben Affleck, Rebecca Hall, Jeremy Renner, John Hamm, Blake Lively
Release    17 SEPT (US) 24 SEPT (UK)    Certificate 15
4 stars


23rd September 2010

Ben Affleck: talented actor whose career undeservingly suffered after the Bennifer affair, or punchably smug media-rapist? Personally, I've always had a soft spot for the lunk-headed grinner - he was, after all, the bomb in Phantoms, yo - but, either way, few can deny that he has managed to recover a lot of credibility post-Gigli. And while Jenny from the Block now languishes in terrible wrong-coms, Affleck continues to 'win the break-up' (let it go, people, it was six years ago) with this well-crafted crime thriller.

Ok, it's fair to say that Affleck's latest directorial effort isn't too dissimilar to his debut, Gone Baby Gone. The streets of Boston and unglamorous (read: ugly) extras provide a typically un-Hollywood-like setting for another tense drama full of conflicted characters. This isn't so much Affleck developing his own style as it is him just sticking to what he knows, but it pays off - like Gone Baby Gone, the film has an authenticity that helps it to rise above other thrillers.

Story-wise, The Town switches to the other side of the law. After some helpful text explains that Charlestown in Boston has produced more bank and armoured car robbers than anywhere else in the US, the film starts with Doug MacRay (Affleck) about to raid a bank with his gang, which includes the hot-headed, trigger-happy Jem (Renner). During the heist, an alarm is raised and Jem takes manager Claire (Hall) as a hostage until they all make a clean getaway. A few days after the robbery, an encounter between Claire and Doug inadvertently leads to a relationship. As they become more deeply involved, Doug decides to move away and make a new start, but Jem isn't willing to let him leave and, at the same time, the FBI are closing in: cue lots of tension-ramping and cat-and-mousing.

[gallery]The film falls foul of a few familiar plot devices, particularly Doug's 'one last job' in the final act, but it generally manages to stay fresh thanks to the stirling performances from the leading members of the cast. In fact, thanks to the seedy undertones and frequent tough-guy confrontations, The Town occasionally feels refreshingly reminiscent of a classic 70s heist movie. This is particularly true during its two biggest set-pieces: a tense car chase scene and a climactic shoot-out. There are no flashy stunts or neat visual tricks to be seen here; just the sphincter-clenching reality of the situation. And yet it's enough to make you realise that, for shame, Hollywood hasn't made gritty, down-to-earth action sequences like this in a long time.

Of course, The Town is a character-driven film rather than a fast-paced blockbuster, so it relies heavily on the respectable cast. Affleck earns back his leading man credentials, perfectly playing the good-guy-gone-bad trapped in exasperating circumstances with a weighty conscience. At the same time, Mad Men's John Hamm has fun as the FBI agent leading the investigation into Doug and his friends, in a role that would seem two-dimensional and inconsequential in other hands.

The real revelations in the film, however, are Blake Lively (best known for squeee-TV's Gossip Girl), who gives a shockingly realistic portrayal of Jem's promiscuous junkie sister and, somewhat less surprisingly, Jeremy Renner. As the borderline psychotic Jem, Renner is virtually unrecognisable from his Oscar-nominated role in The Hurt Locker, expertly lending his character a violent unpredictability that makes for some of the film's most nail-biting moments.

As it nears the end, the film falters slightly in a few places: the FBI's investigation into Doug and his gang occasionally feels forced and too convenient, while the ending seems too abrupt and out of step with the rest of the story. Regardless, The Town remains a triumph, both as a showcase for a new wave of extraordinary acting talent and as another remarkable credit to Affleck's slowly rebuilding reputation. I say he has one more great film to make before we all call it quits for Gigli - and this time he's not allowed to set it in Boston.

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