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The Town: Ben Affleck’s redemption

[rating=3]

After losing the bad guys in a claustrophobic car chase Special Agent Frawley is pissed. “This is the not-f*cking-around crew,” he rants at his men, “So get me something that looks like a print because this f*cking around thing is about to go both ways.” If he’s talking about Ben Affleck’s second stab at directing then Frawley is only half right.

The Town is another criminal ode to Boston and Charlestown in particular, home to more bank robbers than anywhere else in the world. Our featured crew of Good Will Hunting rejects is led by failed hockey pro Doug MacRay, backed up by two strike psycho Jem, wheelman Gloansy and the gang’s alarm specialist Dez.

MacRay, played by an aerodynamic Affleck, is the brains. His meticulous planning doesn’t miss a trick. Every gun is disinfected, every bullet wiped clean, every guard profiled: if they’re overweight it’s a go, if they look like wannabe SWAT walk away. MacRay knows where they live, the names of their wives and what they eat for breakfast. He’s leaving nothing to chance.

Except loose cannon Jem. One more strike and he’s buried in prison like MacRay’s dad, who tells us he has to “die five times” before he gets out. Jem isn’t going back and his appetite for violence is becoming more and more voracious. Rocking a Jimmy Cagney swagger, Jeremy Renner’s Jem has just enough screws loose that we don’t know when his doors will come off their hinges. When MacRay tells him, “We’re gonna hurt some people,” Jem replies, “Whose car we takin’?”

So why does perfectionist MacRay put up with a variable like Jem? Simple–he owes him. Old working class ties run deep in movies like this and The Town is no exception. MacRay nearly made it out once when the majors drafted him and that failure is the gold chain albatross dangling around his neck.

MacRay could be Affleck’s Chuckie left behind by Will in Good Will Hunting, and in places The Town plays like an unofficial sequel about Chuckie’s life story. In that movie Chuckie berates Will for not taking his chance, “Fuck you, you don’t owe it to yourself man, you owe it to me. Cuz tomorrow I’m gonna wake up and I’ll be 50, and I’ll be doin’ this shit. And that’s all right. That’s fine. But you’re sittin’ on a winnin’ lottery ticket. And you’re too much of a pussy to cash it in, and that’s bullshit. Cause I’d do fuckin’ anything to have what you got. So would any of these fuckin’ guys. It’d be an insult to us if you’re still here in 20 years. Hangin’ around here is a waste of your time.”

Chuckie’s words resonate loudly when applied to MacRay but they scream from the top of the Bunker Hill Monument in Affleck’s case. Whereas his boyhood pal Matt Damon has seen his career progress smoothly into iconic status with the Bourne films, Affleck has had to rebuild his after the whole “Bennifer” fiasco.

His rehabilitation as a serious director began with Gone Baby Gone and now with The Town he proves he’s no flash in the pan. Sure, some of the action sequences are a tad “A-Team” but others, like the aforementioned car chase, are more than worthy of Frawley’s outburst. But Affleck’s real strength as a director lies with his character work. The nerve shredding three-way between MacRay, his complicated love interest Claire and gooseberry Jem is calmly handled and will have you gradually reach for the back of your neck.

The real problem for The Town is the king of heist movies, Heat. Michael Mann’s epic covered much the same ground 15 years ago and with limitless genius. Even The Town’s thumping robbery score is reminiscent of Brian Eno’s “Force Marker,” the track used to haunt Heat’s iconic third heist sequence.

Put Heat out of your mind, though, and The Town is an absorbing movie that plays better as a human drama than an action flick. Next time, you can be certain, Affleck will get the mix right, and his film does enough to suggest that he will be a director of some substance as he continues to mature.

Then “this f*cking around thing” will go “both ways.”