A friend of mine told me last week that, amid this diet of arty, “worthy” festival competition films, the viewing of the occasional, more conventional, movie could be “a great palette cleanser”. And so it proved to be with The Town, sandwiched as it was between the sombre and historical Venus Noire, and the pretentious Promises Written on Water. This Ben Affleck directed crime thriller is an unabashed genre movie, which played out of competition.
The film is set in Boston, which we are told right away is the bank robbery capital of the US and a place where crime is “a trade passed from father to son”. The story is familiar, most closely owing a debt to Michael Mann, especially Heat and Thief. A dedicated team of professional criminals – which includes Ben Affleck and Jeremy Renner – rob a bank. However, the plan is soon compromised and the crew take the manager (Rebecca Hall) hostage as they make their escape. Hall is the only witness to their crime, but also becomes the object of Affleck’s affection.
All the clichés are here, from Renner’s “violent loose canon” character, whilst Pete Postlethwaite is on hand as the criminal boss “who won’t take no for an answer”. Affleck meanwhile is setting up his “last job” and dream of retirement. There is also a white trash, drug-addicted girlfriend character (an underwritten role made better by a decent turn from Blake Lively) . But the film knows exactly what it is, ticking these boxes with a steady and reassuring hand. Even Affleck’s love story with Rebecca Hall’s character comes to echo a mixture of Val Kilmer’s in Heat, and James Caan’s in Thief. In fact, in case you weren’t already convinced of its debt to Heat in particular, the three main action sequences are virtually stolen verbatim: a bank job, a security van robbery and an all-out gun battle through the city streets.
Mad Men star Jon Hamm is a necessarily charming and likeable presence as the “cop running the case” character, with all the film’s best (and most cliché) lines. Renner is tough and fits in as a street smart hoodlum. Chris Cooper plays Affleck’s jailed father, with a dangerous light behind his eyes that belies his age and physicality. And Rebecca Hall is, as always, an elegant and emotionally intelligent actress. If there is a weak link, ironically it is Affleck himself.
There is nothing wrong with him. He’s a solid, if unremarkable presence, and I guess you could argue that is all a lead has to be: an everyman, an empty shirt. But he is just a bit boring to watch. And worse of all, he doesn’t ring true as a tough guy from the projects. He has cast himself in the role of the charismatic, smart and tough kid from a bad neighbourhood, and one of the country’s most wanted men. And I find that difficult to buy into. Especially when everyone else in the film is so good. I also thought the ending (literally just the last five minutes) was soppy, sentimental mush, lacking the conviction of the rest of the piece.
But these are minor complaints which don’t really spoil the film at all. At its heart it is entertaining, exciting and fun stuff, with hardly a metaphor or experimental flourish in sight. There isn’t room for flashy touches of directorial bravado here. It is a simple story, told simply and as a result it is not only a refreshing change of pace for the festival line-up, but also shows great intelligence and craft in its director. A great palette cleanser of a movie.