With his second feature behind the camera after 2007's Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck proves his directorial prowess, knack for a keen story and his eye for great performances with the slightly flawed, but ultimately damned entertaining crime-drama, The Town.
Affleck's always been a talented actor, enough so to register next to a stellar performance from Jeremy Renner -- as he does here -- and a good writer (remember he picked up that Oscar for Good Will Hunting). But if he maintains this kind of quality as a director, that hat might be the one he winds up being most remembered for wearing.
The opening text sets the stage in the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown, home to an unusually high concentration of professional bank robbers, and immediately gets down to how it's done as a crew of longtime thieves expertly stages a very successful heist in neighboring Cambridge.
That is until one of the tellers, Claire (Rebecca Hall) surreptitiously trips the silent alarm. She's taken hostage by the thieves -- a group of lifelong friends led by Doug MacRay (Affleck) who plans the heists, as well as Jim Coughlin (Jeremy Renner) the more hardened and violent of the pair. Along with Albert (Slaine) and Desmond (Owen Burke) providing tech support, the crew escapes and releases Claire once they are free from danger. But not before taking her driver's license.
Jim realizes from the address on her license that she lives just a few blocks away from their homes, and being somewhat paranoid, decides he wants to make sure of what she knows. But Doug convinces Jim to let him feel her out, instead. After "meeting" Claire while doing laundry, her and MacRay's abundance of blinding good looks draws them quickly together.
Meanwhile, a smart and determined FBI agent, Adam Frawley (Don Draper himself John Hamm) is hot on their trail, though he's hamstrung by a lack of real evidence (they are very diligent in leaving no physical traces). That doesn't stop him from trying to put the pieces together, while the band of merry thieves are kept busy by their boss, Fergus Colm (Pete Postlewaite), who gives them jobs for a cut of the loot.
Of course, as the law tightens the noose around the crew -- and MacRay's secret role in Claire's kidnapping trauma threatens to destroy his motivation to leave the life of crime -- the consequences of their choices inexorably lead MacRay to pull off one last score.
The Town is a crackling if somewhat familiar story, told with verve, great style and an assured hand by Affleck (who also co-wrote the script, based on Chuck Hogan's novel Prince of Thieves). Robert Elswit's vibrant cinematography richly captures the tangible atmosphere and gritty action in warm, saturated tones resulting in a sumptuous portrait, while Affleck does a great job at staging the action sequences. Just as his erstwhile partner, Matt Damon, surprised everyone with his proficiency at ass-kicking in the Bourne films, Affleck here surprises with his adept ability for putting together propulsive, well-paced, visually coherent action.
He brings off the heists with a pleasing level of detail, maintaining a kinetic thrust that never comes off as rushed or confusing. The sequences themselves seem as well choreographed as the robberies they depict, building expertly from the excitement of the heist to the thrill of the escape, particularly with one great car chase sequence through the narrow Boston side streets that even holds up well against flicks like The French Connection. No CG cars pulling off impossible stunts here, just visceral pacing and great shot choreography that satisfyingly raise the adrenaline levels.
But between the bursts of action, The Town falters slightly, though not on the strength of its performances. Affleck is dependably charismatic as MacRay, though some of the scenes between his character and Rebecca Hall's Claire come off as forced -- not that they lack for chemistry -- as their "getting to know you" dates feel contrived, at least initially. They both turn in good performances, but this was where the script suffered a bit; that sense of trying too hard -- particularly one scene where MacRay and Jim beat the shit out of a couple of Townies that bullied Claire when she first moved to the neighborhood. It's supposed to cement his fidelity to her, but it's ironic that in a movie loaded with some wickedly paced action sequences, their relationship feels the more rushed.
It's a complaint, and not a big one, that's easier to forgive since Jeremy Renner knocks it out of Fenway Park after his Oscar-nominated role in The Hurt Locker.
The guy just bristles with the authentic danger and inherent likeability of the best sympathetic bad guys, while he adds layers and depth with the subtleties of his portrayal. It's a great performance that should get a Supporting Actor nod in a few months time.
Bookended nicely with a chilling turn from Postlewaite as Fergus Colm, The Town not only cements Affleck's action credentials but also his ability to capture some great character work from his well chosen cast.
The Town is a damn fine piece of filmmaking. Affleck's sophomore effort should have you looking forward to his senior year.
An Evil Mess
Nobody likes M. Night Shyamalan anymore. He makes it difficult sometimes.
The one-time wunderkind who somewhat deservedly blew people's minds with the The Sixth Sense rebounded with the undeservedly maligned Unbreakable, and I don't think they ever really trusted him again; proof that the customer isn't always right. Unbreakable was a sign of growth, whose "twist" lay in the ironies of superhero mythology and whose promise was quickly interrupted by Night's need to retreat from a perceived failure and try and re-bottle his first film's "twist end" lightning with The Village. Things just deteriorated from there.
I actually like Signs (despite the massive plot holes and weak finale) but that was a blip on a downhill trajectory, which continued with The Lady in the Water and led to the so bad it's charming, The Happening. I will probably never see The Last Airbender. My will to live is still intact.
Night's name attached to Devil in a producing and story capacity kind of threw me for a loop. At once, this could mean a hilariously bad film, but then again, without him trying to direct and with someone else writing the script maybe it might wind up being better than what one would expect. Perhaps with Night doing what George Lucas should have done before making the Star Wars prequels, just sitting back and letting better artists give life to his OK ideas, Devil would stand a chance of being good.
So imagine my disappointment when Devil was neither particularly bad nor particularly good. It really needed to be one or the other to not come off like a moderately decent Twilight Zone episode.
The opening sequence finds us flying upside down to Night's hometown of Philadelphia and into the elevator shaft of an office high rise (the cinematography of Tak Fujimoto is a check in Devil's plus column), where five people are about to get on an elevator.
Bokeem Woodbine is a building security guard who harbors a secret past -- which can actually be said for all his fellow passengers when the elevator suddenly stops between floors; a mechanic (Logan Marshall-Green); a young, attractive woman (Bojana Novakovic); a creepy salesman (Geoffrey Arend) and Doug Heffernan's mom (Jenny O'Hara).
Little do they know that, due to being shitty people in one way or another, they have been brought together to suffer and die at the hands of Lucifer, who has taken human form in one of these strangers and who starts knocking the rest off, one by one.
And you'll figure out who it is inside of ten minutes.
Hence, Devil is a bit of a bore. The film attempts to generate dread with a forebodingly bombastic (but weirdly likeable) score by Fernando Velázquez and a claustrophobic visual sense, but Devil is hamstrung by its setting and the script's predictability -- such as where in order to work around concealing Old Scratch's identity in a small, well lit, elevator, the script (by 30 Days of Night's Brian Nelson) makes the obvious choice and just turns out the lights every now and then. Lights out, some bumping and yelling, punctuated by something breaking, and when they come back on someone's dead.
It might be an admirable attempt at tension building if it were nearly as effective as the filmmakers think it is. It isn't, and what you're left with are thinly written protagonists, a bunch of confused, ineffective cops -- led by Chris Messina's Detective Bowden, whose sub-plot ties in with one of the characters on the elevator in what was the film's sole element resembling a story arc -- and a piss-scared Hispanic security guard (Jacob Vargas) who immediately senses the hand of El Diablo and goes into cryptic warning mode.
Director John Dowdle has a workman-like, stripped-down style, which telegraphs just about every scare tactic from a mile off and he isn't savvy enough to smooth over the unimaginative and predictable script. While the film itself is kind of a bore, though, his pacing was efficient (the film barely clocks in at an hour and fifteen minutes). At least he didn't try to make it more harrowing by making it longer, because this was never going to be scary. In the end, it winds up feeling like a morality play, and the bad goings on are more like a means to an end for its redemptive message. It's too safe to be scary.
Of the cast, no one really distinguishes themselves, but no one embarrasses themselves, either (there were a couple of unintentionally funny line readings). Weirdly, Matt Craven in a small supporting role as Lustig, another security guard assisting Det. Bowden, stuck out with its naturalism, while Logan Marshall-Green turns in a decent performance. But just like many of this film's components, they were neither good nor bad enough to make much of an impact.
And Devil had the potential to be either of those things. I wish it would have committed to one.
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