"The Town"

Like every other regular, straight, American male, I hate Ben Affleck. It’s like a genetic mutation we all went through sometime in the late 90s or early 2000s. Maybe that’s what the real Y2K bug was: a fervent hatred of all things Affleck. Simply muttering his name at a party is likely to bring about reactions ranging somewhere between facial expressions similar to the ones you might see if a wet dog entered the room and loud cursing in a tone usually reserved for Tarantino flicks. He brought it upon himself with retched film choices and a complete disregard for the craft in which he worked but still, it’s uncanny how unanimously hated this guy really is. Well, friends, after taking in “The Town,” I’m about ready to throw my hat into the “Let’s Stop Hating on Poor Ol’ Ben” ring. I never thought this day would come but I’m willing to defend my position. Please hold your questions until after the review.

“The Town” centers around a section of Boston called Charlestown, an area that sees more bank robberies per year than any other place in the world. We open on a well-planned, well-executed bank heist as four heavily armed bandits, disguised in freakish orc-like Halloween masks, methodically grab a bag full of cash and take bank manager Claire (Rebecca Hall) hostage. Once safely away, the crew releases Claire with the promise of repercussions if she talks to the cops. Crew leader Doug McRay (Ben Affleck) takes on the task of keeping an eye on Claire, in part because he’s afraid the wild card of the group, James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner), might murder her as a precaution. Before long, Doug and Claire become romantically involved, a pairing that leads to some tense moments given the fact that Doug put Claire through the worst experience of her life. Soon an FBI special operations team, led by Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm,) gets on the case and drives hard toward bringing in the thieves who’ve made quite a name for themselves. As his relationship with Claire deepens, McRay and his crew continue to take scores while the FBI gets ever closer to putting them away, setting the stage for a head-on collision between the three parties.

Going into this movie I had seen a lot of comparisons between “The Town” and “Heat”, the 1995 cops-and-robbers drama that pitted Al Pacino and Robert De Niro against each other. The problem with that comparison is that it sets an almost impossible expectation that can’t possibly be met. “Heat” is a masterpiece which manages to hit a home run in virtually every aspect of filmmaking. Casting, writing, acting, directing, sound mix, conclusion, cinematography, and on down the list, every single part of the movie is perfect. It’s completely unfair to put that kind of pressure on any film. It’s the Michael Jordan of gritty cop dramas. But in all truth, “The Town” might be the closest thing to “Heat” that I have yet to see. It’s not Michael Jordan but it might be Dominique Wilkins.

The cast of “The Town” provides some outstanding support for the main character. Hall plays the vulnerable yet resilient Claire sufficiently and gives depth to what could have been a one-dimensional character. John Hamm continues to prove his strength and versatility as Frawley provides a worthy opponent for McRay highlighted by a few powerful, headlining moments. Titus Welliver, Chris Cooper, and the great Pete Postlethwaite all deliver in limited roles. Even Blake Lively, best known for the awfulness that is “Gossip Girl”, gives a quality performance as a junkie whom McCray has been involved with in the past. And then there’s Jeremy Renner, whose Oscar-nominated turn as Sergeant First Class William James in “The Hurt Locker” catapulted him to stardom. What an absolute talent that guy is. Coughlin is a troubled cat who’s bordering on becoming an all-out sociopath and yet he is a fiercely loyal friend who would (and does) drop anything to stand by his friends. Renner hits the mark perfectly, bringing the proper amount of edge and dark humor to the role which allows Coughlin to be both the driving force of recklessness that eventually destroys the crew and a sympathetic figure at the same time. Renner is quickly turning into one of my favorite actors in the business.

And so we come to Mr. Affleck. The resume this guy put together between “Good Will Hunting” and today is atrocious. Jump over to IMDB, have a look at that list, and try to defend his work, especially the collection of crap between “Armageddon” and “Hollywoodland.” I’ll give you “The Sum of All Fears” as a defensible choice because no one turns down that role at the time. But “Gigli”, “Surviving Christmas”, “Reindeer Games”, “Changing Lanes”, “Jersey Girls”, and the aptly named “Paycheck”…that’s a vile list of films that John Travolta himself would be ashamed of. Affleck took a promising career and buried it in a pile of ill-gotten cash, creating a particularly nasty reputation in the process. What kept Affleck from following in the footsteps of the once great Val Kilmer and the like is a simple yet rare characteristic: humility. Affleck took his medicine so to speak and listened to the criticism. I’ve read numerous interviews with Affleck over the last few weeks in which he basically admitted to taking horrible film roles and expressing a lack of respect for his craft. Instead of continuing on that path, he first got behind the camera, turning himself into a very good director (“Gone Baby Gone”) and then got serious about acting again. The results are on display in “The Town” and as a card carrying member of the Ben Affleck Haters Association (see: straight American male), I feel the need to commend his performance. Affleck nails McCray from start to finish, combining that classic Boston swagger with a bit of fear and a pinch of regret. He delivers his lines with poised power, drawing more than one audible “wow” from this writer. Altogether, I feel it’s safe to say this is the best performance of the man’s career and should serve as his re-introduction to the industry.

“Gone Baby Gone” taught me that Affleck could direct but I wasn’t sure he ever had much talent as an actor. I’m sure now. All told, “The Town” easily jumps into my top ten list for the year and ranks as one of the better cop dramas of the recent past. The ending is a bail-out, a cookie-cutter conclusion to a movie that deserves better, and I think Hamm’s Frawley is underused. So while it isn’t “Heat”, nothing really is. “The Town” is a well-made, strongly written, brilliantly acted film that should find a place to belong during award season.

Grade: A

Jon Hamm is “Superman”, Brian