Having recently disparaged The Red Riding Trilogy as "a compendium of cliches," it bears asking, Gentle Reader, why am I willing to give The Town a pass for offering more of the same? Is it because: a) I'm a sucker for heist movies; b) I adore the cast; c) the summer--hell, this year--has been so abysmal for movies that I'm willing to overpraise one that's merely efficient; or d) I feel compelled to defend Ben Affleck, a likable schlub who has made some interesting career choices and raised his game in the years since breaking it off with J-Lo, even though some critics still can't seem to let the Gigli era go. (Charles Taylor's summary of that film remains the most sober: "It isn't a crime against humanity. It is merely bad.")
The answer, of course, is all the above. The Town is a heist flick with all the fixings. There's The Leader who wants one last score (Affleck); The Girl he unwisely falls in love with (Rebecca Hall); The Hothead who may fuck everything up (Jeremy Renner); The Man Of The Law hot on their tail (Jon Hamm); The Big Boss who won't let The Leader off the hook (Pete Postlewaite); The Father with whom he has issues (Chris Cooper); The Damaged Goods Ex who could ruin everything (Blake Lively); The Secret From The Past that returns to affect the present (Ma!); and the titular Town itself, Boston, which Affleck knows like the back of his hand. Nearly all these elements were also present in Michael Mann's Heat (which took place in the director's darkly glittering L.A.), and The Town unfolds as a kind of Heat, Jr., only with a filmmaker less interested in elevating cliches to mythic archetypes than he is at uncovering the hardscrabble humanity beneath them. In truth, Affleck lacks the chops to even try what Mann accomplishes. Yet his endeavor -- to make an entertaining movie that depicts his hometown with all the affection and misgivings he clearly feels for it -- has its own integrity.
It's no secret that actors are often the worst directors. Most have no eye, no sense of rhythm or timing (I'm looking at you, Jack Nicholson); and they're either vain enough to have statues erected in their own honor (Kevin Coster/Postman Syndrome) or so in love with their fellow thespians that they indulge their worst impulses (Sean Penn springs to mind). In his first film behind the camera, the engrossing crime drama Gone Baby Gone, Affleck showed no egotistical protectiveness toward his stand-in, brother Casey, in the lead role. (It's revealing that the most heroic moment in that film went to Michelle Monghan's selfless attempt to save a child from drowning, shot thrillingly from overhead as she plunged into the sea.) Although, in The Town, Affleck occasionally falls back on familiar visual tropes (clouds racing overhead, etc.), he has an intuitive sense of where to put the camera, of understanding what matters in a given scene.
What matters most is his character's relationships with Hall's bank manager, whom his crew kidnaps at the start of the film, and with Renner's hair-trigger-man, who once saved Affleck's life and did several years' hard time for it. Affleck knows he's working with a pair of tremendous actors, two of the best up-and-comers in the business. Both Renner and Hall have feelers that turn their characters into bundles-of-nerves: the former expressing the matter-of-factness of a man who would rather be killed than go back to prison, the latter conveying the trauma of a woman who remembers being released on a beach while blindfolded, told to keep walking until she feels the water on her toes, and expecting to fall over a cliff instead. Between Hall's remarkable work here, as well as Monaghan and Amy Ryan's breakout roles in Gone Baby Gone, Affleck, unlike many male filmmakers, has proven himself a sensitive, generous director of actresses.
In The Town, along with the aforementioned twosome, against-the-grain performances are delivered by Hamm, playing his FBI agent as a suavely malicious careerist rather than a fire-breathing eyeball-bulger (he has a great scene where he casually explains to Lively's drugged-out barfly the length of a dollar bill); Cooper's imprisoned Daddy-O, filled with wounded pride for his son; and Postlewaite's capo, who owns a flower shop (a witty front) and whose physique functions as a withered temple of malevolence reminiscent of William Hickey in Prizzi's Honor. Affleck cannot compete with such a high-caliber cast and wisely doesn't try. Yet he's become a much sturdier onscreen presence, realizing that he can trade on natural affability and get his hands dirty without losing audience goodwill.
The Town has a draggy middle patch, wherein too many exposition-building scenes are strung together when, in truth, an action sequence interspersed between would have been more apropos. (Individually the scenes are fine; I just envisioned re-editing the order while watching them.) When the action arrives, though, it's crisply staged, filled with humorous flourishes. One heist, where the crew wears nun's habits and masks, ends with an unexpected sight-gag that made me laugh out loud. And the climax -- a daring raid inside Fenway Park -- is a homage to the thrilling bank heist in Heat that spills into the streets: not up to Mann's verisimilitude (that's a tall order), yet visceral enough to be worthy of its own comparison. Most movies fall apart so dreadfully in the homestretch that I give The Town points for finishing strong (aside from an unfortunate image that's like an unintended nod to his sibling's directorial debut). When he holds his own in a final confrontation against an expert veteran performer, the scene transcends its own compelling narrative terms and becomes, like the rest of the film, a statement from Affleck to his most dismissive critics: You've hit me with your best shot, but I'm still here.