Ben Affleck and Jeremy Renner in The Town (2010)
Remember the saying; it's not what you do, it's how you do it? Well that serves as a pretty apt description for how The Town, Ben Affleck's second feature as director, approaches the crime genre. Steeped in cliché it may be, but it's a hugely exciting picture with a lot of heart - something sorely missing from recent pedestrian outings such as Brooklyn's Finest (Antoine Fuqua, 2009). The most notable comparison (and the one critics were riding their wave of praise on) is Heat (Michael Mann, 1995), but they're actually very different films. Mann's thriller was a soft-shaded exercise in male mechanics, charting the battle between cop and criminal, and where they become one and the same. Each character had other relationships going on but they played second fiddle to the central Pacino/De Niro tussle, and lacked anything approaching a real heart - it was about psychology. That films ethos was "don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner" but the criminal characters in The Town are more recognizably human - they know when they should walk away, but can't bring themselves to. Ultimately they are not the ones in control of their own destiny...
The film opens with an exciting, tightly shot bank heist - one of three major set-pieces in the film, each with their own distinct tone and flavour. Things go wrong when somebody pushes a secret alarm and the robbers are forced to take hostage Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), who they leave on the beach. Loose cannon James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner) proposes killing her, suspecting she is talking to the FBI - which she is, with Special Agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm). But kind-hearted Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) decides to go himself and starts to fall in love with her. Their relationship is the core of the film, and the realistic dialogue and underplayed performances give their interactions depth and believability. Indeed, the actors are all on top form - Affleck hasn't been this good in years, Hall is lovely, Hamm is engaging and Blake Lively (as James' junkie sister Krista) is excellent. But it's really Renner who commands the screen, especially in his adrenaline-pumping final shoot-out with the cops. He's a true star in the making; excelling in the vastly different role of William James in The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008), and soon to be seen in the fourth installment of the M:I franchise, Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird, 2011). His is a ruthlessly violent turn, with anger and ambition burning behind the eyes. He's a muscular presence, charismatic but unwieldy; he'd rather die than go back to prison. Excuse the crassness but if Affleck and Hall are the heart, Renner is the balls - making sure that every action sequence is injected with a degree of unpredictability - especially when he shoots a guard during the second robbery (an armored car), resulting in a thrilling car chase, one of the best edited action sequences in recent memory - exciting without resorting to the nonsense of shaky-cam and choppy fast-cuts. It's calm and controlled, recalling Doug Liman's work on The Bourne Identity (2002).
Furiously paced (it certainly doesn't feel like two hours), the human interactions are what really sets this apart from the legion of crime thrillers it has been lazily compared to. It's a story of love against impossible odds and deception at the hands of it, a brotherly bond between two lifelong friends, and a son trying so hard to exist outside of his fathers shadow while suffering the memory of his lost mother. But it's also the story of Charlestown, a Boston neighborhood famed for its generations of bank robbers. It's almost the main character of the film - a breeding ground for crime, with pawns and kingpins interacting in one huge interconnected pool. There's a real sense of history to the characters, and a feeling of time-honored tradition, best exemplified by Fergus Colm (a solid Pete Postlethwaite), an Irish thug and florist who goes all the way back to the generation of Doug's incarcerated father (Chris Cooper, also excellent in his one scene). It doesn't really say anything new as far as the genre is concerned, but on a human level The Town really is the best crime film in years, and the beautiful score by Harry Gregson-Williams and David Buckley (especially Doug Reflects and The Letter) adds to that feeling, and is the most currently underrated aspect of the film. Affleck is really proving himself as a director of intelligence and maturity, crafting an adult thriller which tugs the heartstrings while it pins you to your seat. It's a genuine treat, and one of the best films of 2010.