Sunday, 10 October 2010

The Town

Where on earth did this Ben Affleck come from? Fresh from Oscar success with Good Will Hunting, buddy and co-writer Matt Damon seemed to sprint ahead; Affleck meanwhile langoured in material ranging from expensive (Daredevil) to abysmal (Gigli) to expensive and abysmal (Pearl Harbour). Then all of a sudden he exploded back on the camera, or rather behind it, with his incisive, gripping thriller cum Boston character study, and directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone. Never could we have foreseen such a brilliantly realised and confident feature from a star who had more than his fair share of detractors.

Expectations were therefore high for sophomore effort The Town. Once again it's set on gritty home turf; there's an all star cast of acclaimed character actors; and it purports to blend the incisive social commentary of Gone Baby with crackerjack action sequences along the lines of Heat. On watching the finished product, the above ambitions are certainly evident, but it does feel like cinematic bubble and squeak: a blend of ingredients that produce an overly familiar taste.

It starts with a blast of herky jerky close-up action: Affleck and his veteran crew robbing a bank in masks, very Heat (or is it Point Break?) Loose cannon Jeremy Renner demands they take distraught manager Rebecca Hall hostage. Such a rash decision soon devolves into paranoia, when the criminals find themselves unsure how much their victim knows. Enter Affleck, who begins a romance with his former collateral, all the while attempting to glean the extent of her knowledge. Will she spill the beans to Jon Hamm's committed FBI agent? Does she have any to spill at all? And will the chance to escape the urban projects ever present itself?

Clearly, then, originality isn't one of The Town's strong points. It aspires to Heat's blend of cool character study and blistering action but in reality is proud to steal inspiration from any number of sources, including The Departed (the 'let's go to work' FBI briefing) and Collateral (the importance of preserving that dream of escape from the harsh urban ghetto). The latter also infuses it with a kind of dewy-eyed poetry that wouldn't be seen dead in the tough 70s thrillers like The French Connection to which it also clearly aspires. The romantic moments feel as archetypal as the characters, although that's not to detract from their entertainment value. Indeed, as Renner's gun-toting psycho is enjoyably familiar, the swooning quiet moments between Affleck and Hall reverberate far more in their quiet simplicity than the louder, brasher segments.

And, just to further play devil's advocate, it's exceptionally well-made within its cliched, half-baked parameters. It's just the element of surprise that's been taken away, Affleck's potency having been distilled into a more competent professionalism. The very nature of the beast as well (robbers/heists/FBI) necessitates that its director stick to a series of familiar conventions. And while Affleck may be more convincing telling the story of a bank robber than acting as one in front of the camera, performances elsewhere are excellent, especially the monstrous turns from Pete Posthlewaite and Chris Cooper, whose brief appearances threaten to steal the film. Those wanting more meat on the bones however, will be disappointed, especially given the solemn opening epigraphs that hint at the mouth-watering possibilities of both location and story.

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