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Review

Affleck falls short in completing masterpiece

Michael Brun

September 23, 2010

After its release in 1995, Michael Mann’s crime epic “Heat” would go on to impress both audiences and critics with its gritty portrayal of professional thievery. With its talented cast, memorable characters and dedication to authenticity, “Heat” is widely considered the gold standard for heist movies.  To say that “The Town” looks and feels inspired by “Heat” would be an understatement.

It is obvious that Ben Affleck, flexing his creative muscles as the film’s director, co-writer and star, took plenty of notes while watching Mann’s masterpiece. However, while “The Town” has many of the same elements that made “Heat” a classic, they fail to reach the same level of quality. It was a noble attempt for his sophomore directing effort, but Affleck’s “Town” is lukewarm at best.

The title of the film comes from Charlestown, a crime-ridden Boston neighborhood that is supposedly a spawning ground for bank robbers. One of them is Doug MacRay (Affleck), a down on his luck former hockey star forced into a life of crime to pay his bills. He is not a bad guy—just the product of desperation and family tradition (MacRay’s father, played by an underutilized Chris Cooper, is also a thief). The real bad guy in this tale is James Coughlin (“Hurt Locker” star Jeremy Renner), MacRay’s childhood friend and partner in crime. Whereas MacRay tries to avoid hurting bystanders, Coughlin has no qualms about roughing up a security guard or killing a witness. After MacRay falls in love with a bank manager taken hostage during one of his robberies (a likely event), he begins to question his wayward life. But he soon discovers that bank robbing is a tough job to quit, and that getting out of Charlestown is easier done dead than alive. Like “Heat,” the plot of “The Town” is mostly character driven. In other words, it is propelled forward by the actions and choices of its key players.

In both films, the actions of the lead characters are influenced by an internal conflict between love and loyalty; they crave a life free from violence, but are held back by brotherly devotion to their comrades.Where “The Town” and “Heat” differ is in the complexity of their characters. While even unimportant background characters feel fleshed out in “Heat,” only the core team of Affleck and Renner receive proper development in “The Town.”

The rest of the cast is full of what I like to call Characters of Convenience. They are a hollow, unimaginative lot, introduced to serve a single purpose in the plot before getting conveniently cast aside.
Jon Hamm, star of AMC’s “Mad Men,” falls into this unfortunate category.

He plays the role of an FBI agent determined to bring down MacRay and his crew. Their cat and mouse battle of wits is occasionally thrilling, but Hamm’s character is almost criminally underdeveloped. Ditto for “The Prestige” star Rebecca Hall as Affleck’s love interest.

They are both terrifically talented actors, so it is a shame that they’re relegated to the fringes of Affleck and Renner’s spotlight.

The most memorable scenes in “The Town” are the intense robberies, the majority of which devolve into frantic gun battles with the police.

But even these feel like lesser tributes to the legendary shootout from “Heat.” Also, the action in these scenes borders on blockbuster extravagance, weakening the film’s adherence to gritty realism. Ultimately “The Town” is little more than “Heat Lite.” While it is a satisfactory action film, its plotting is too obvious and its characters are too thin for it to be considered a new classic. Affleck has a masterpiece swirling around in that head of his, but unfortunately this is not it.

Michael Brun is an alumnus of UW-River Falls.