Bunker Hill to Fenway: A Crook’s Freedom Trail

Movie Review
September 17, 2010

Somewhat less generic than its title, “The Town,” directed by Ben Affleck from a script he wrote with Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard, is a solid, minor entry in the annals of Boston crime drama. Not as florid as “The Departed” or as sadly soulful as “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” — or even as sticky and gamy as “Gone Baby Gone,” Mr. Affleck’s previous film — it is essential viewing for connoisseurs of dropped r’s, close-cropped hair and aerial views of the city that used to call itself the hub of the universe.

Long ago, in the American popular imagination, Boston was the home of the bean and the cod, a genteel stomping ground of Brahmins and bluestockings and Ivy League nitwits. Nowadays, perhaps owing to tax incentives that encourage local film production, it has become a paradise for dialect coaches and a cinematic stronghold of the kind of white, ethnic, blue-collar tribalism that used to flourish in movies about places like Philadelphia, Chicago and, of course, New York.

A sober introductory text informs us that one particular area of the city — Charlestown, where tourists can follow the Freedom Trail to the Bunker Hill Monument — is home to more armored car and bank robbers than anywhere else in America. One of them is Doug MacRay (Mr. Affleck), whose crew is first seen knocking over a bank in Cambridge. That sequence, like most of the other action set pieces in the film, is lean, brutal and efficient, and evidence of Mr. Affleck’s skill and self-confidence as a director.

His character is a bit less certain of things. The life of crime is the only one he knows, and he is good at what he does, but there are broad hints — well, O.K., blazing neon signs — that his heart is no longer in it. His father (Chris Cooper), serving a life term in the penitentiary, is not much of a role model, and Doug’s best friend, Jim (Jeremy Renner), who is also a surrogate brother and stickup partner, is not about to let Doug leave. So he goes to A.A. meetings, guiltily sleeps with Jim’s sister (Blake Lively), more out of habit than passion, and dreams of escaping to Florida.

Further complications arrive in the form of a zealous F.B.I. man (Jon Hamm) and a young woman named Claire (Rebecca Hall), who works at the Cambridge bank and is taken hostage when something goes wrong. The thieves let her go, but Jim gets nervous and wants to take care of her — either scare her or, more likely, kill her before she talks to law enforcement. Instead, Doug says he’ll deal with Claire, but starts dating her, a development that is perhaps meant to heighten the emotional intensity of his predicament but instead disrupts the film’s tough mood with sentimental preposterousness.

Ms. Hall, a subtle actress with an intriguing face, has very little to do, and her character is three different kinds of cipher, lacking sufficient individuality to galvanize the audience’s interest. Claire and Doug’s romance has a hint of class tension — she’s what the locals call a “toonie,” meaning a gentrifying interloper into their tightly-knit bastion — but the film is too cool and procedural to give their relationship any depth of feeling. Similarly, the bond between Doug and Jim, which evokes every volatile old-neighborhood friendship going back to “Mean Streets,” is missing the thick, atavistic texture that would make the drama compelling.

As it is, the performances in “The Town” are strong enough to make it watchable, and the sense of place — of topography and architecture, if not of actual social life — is vivid and enjoyable. A climactic caper at Fenway Park blows holes in the film’s narrative and emotional credibility, but it is fast and exciting all the same, perhaps especially for Yankees fans.

Otherwise, the main attraction is the blaring music of those accents. It’s a lark, a spark, a walk in the park.

“The Town” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Everyone’s favorite profanity is used often.

THE TOWN opens on Friday nationwide.

Directed by Ben Affleck; written by Peter Craig, Mr. Affleck and Aaron Stockard, based on the novel “Prince of Thieves” by Chuck Hogan; director of photography, Robert Elswit; edited by Dylan Tichenor; music by Harry Gregson-Williams and David Buckley; production designer, Sharon Seymour; costumes by Susan Matheson; produced by Graham King and Basil Iwanyk; released by Warner Brothers Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes.

WITH: Ben Affleck (Doug MacRay), Rebecca Hall (Claire Keesey), Jon Hamm (Adam Frawley), Jeremy Renner (James Coughlin), Blake Lively (Krista Coughlin), Slaine (Gloansy Magloan), Owen Burke (Desmond Elden), Titus Welliver (Dino Ciampa), Pete Postlethwaite (Fergie Colm) and Chris Cooper (Stephen MacRay).

Editorial: Boston on film: Whitey doesn't live here anymore
TrailerAddict: THE FIGHTER opens December 2010



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