Sunday, 3 October 2010

Thoughts on "The Town"

So, I just got back from seeing The Town, or alternatively, The Only Decent Thing Showing in Scottish Cinemas in September. If you follow movie news at all, then you already know that it's getting high praise from just about everybody, a few critics going as far as to call it the next Heat. Which is a big deal, because back around 2005, the idea that a movie directed by Michael Mann and starring Robert DeNiro would one day be seriously compared to a movie directed by Ben Affleck and starring Ben Affleck would be considered adequate grounds for a psych evaluation.

Me? Yeah, I liked it a lot, although I'd have to say that the magnitude of the praise it's been getting is probably derived in part from incredulity that the man who gave us Gigli and Paycheck could turn out something legitimately excellent (not even Heat itself can claim 95% approval on Rotten Tomatoes). It's an extremely solid piece of genre fiction, not our generation's answer to The Godfather.

The film is set in Affleck's native Boston, focusing on a crew of bank robbers from the neighbourhood of Charlestown. They're lifelong friends, even willing to go to prison for each others' sake; honour among thieves and all that. But after their most recent heist, the heat is starting to pile up in an FBI investigation into the crew's activities, and the crew's leader, Doug MacRay (Affleck's character), is getting involved romantically with a woman they took hostage (Rebecca Hall). Predictably, things start to get worse as the crew get into closer and closer brushes with the law.

The plot's not really anything new, and a lot of the scenes and devices The Town uses you've seen before; the honourable thief who wants to pull off one last job before he leaves it all behind, the phone conversation with the love interest who tries to leave cryptic hints even while she's surrounded by police... it plays pretty much every trick in the Michael Mann handbook. But it works, not because it has any particular twists or gimmicks up its sleeve but purely by dint of good writing and direction. The pacing is pitch perfect, chase scenes and staged gun battles never allowing the plot to droop into the kind of dry, documentarian approach that sometimes plagues these kinds of films (I'm looking at you, Pride and Glory). And they're really good action sequences too, not so slick and stylised as to be unbelievable, but none of the frenzied, incomprehensible handheld Bourne-bullshit that's plagued so many movies recently. Chaotic and urgent, but also clear and precise: just the way it should be.

The characterisation is just as strong. To me, the hallmark of a genuinely three-dimensional character is one who is capable of laughing and loving in spite of whatever dark personal history they might have, and Doug MacRay fits that bill. He's a tough "rock-breaking townie", as he once refers to himself as, but he's also honourable and sensitive, with a convincing fraternal bond with his fellow criminals-since-childhood and a romantic streak that doesn't feel phoned in. He feels like a fully-realised human being who you could have a drink and a conversation with, not a construct that exists for the convenience of the plot. The movies need more Doug MacRays.

As for Affleck himself... he's alright. He looks and sounds the part as a Bostonian roughneck, although he still tends to fall back on the mouth-half-open incredulous gawp (that Bill Bailey so astutely parodied). Decent performance, not sensational. The Town is a bigger deal for him as a directorial opus magnum anyway, and in that respect, he delivers in spades.

Of the few negative critiques that have been levelled at The Town, most of them have been along the lines that it tries to be a smarter, more meaningful story than it actually is. Ironically, I thought the exact opposite; it's been a consistent sticking point for me with films in the crime/police procedural genre that they're presented as offering some kind of unique insight into societal and familial dynamics (again, looking at you Pride and Glory) when in fact, they rely on genre conventions as set as those in any given horror movie or romantic comedy. The Town, by contrast, isn't so up itself. It isn't so concerned with presenting some kind of grim social tableau as it is with delivering a good honest piece of genre entertainment. It even finds the space to insert a few jokes(!). It won't prompt any new and valuable insight into the human condition or the social plight of the downtrodden or any of that crap. But it is a smart, exhilirating and damn near watertight crime story. If you have any love at all for the genre, you should definitely check it out. Ben Affleck, all is forgiven for Pearl Harbor.