Now that Ben Affleck has given up his superhero ambitions and taken on acting and directing more seriously, he's become a lot better at his job. With his starring in "Hollywoodland," "State of Play" and the "The Company Men," directing "Gone Baby Gone," and now starring in and directing 2010's "The Town," we can see he's definitely heading in the right direction. "The Town" may not be the most momentous or thought-provoking film around, but for me it was one of the most entertaining movies of the year.
Now, here's the thing: Despite its gritty feel and appearance, "The Town" is a romantic heist picture at heart: "Romantic" in the sense that it has a love story involved, and "romantic" in that it's imbued with emotion, hyperbole, and fanciful adventure. In other words, it may seem on the surface quite realistic, but underneath all the coarseness and violence, it's really a Hollywood movie after all, complete with a criminal antihero we root for. Bogart could have done this picture sixty years ago, and that's a compliment.
"One blue-collar Boston neighborhood has produced more bank robbers and armored car thieves than anywhere in the world: Charlestown."
Affleck plays Doug MacRay, Charlestown born and bred. He robs banks and armored cars. Yet he's essentially a good man. He's a genial man who doesn't believe in trying to hurt or kill anyone in a robbery. When he's not robbing banks and armored cars, he works for a sand-and-gravel company. He is your basic movie antihero, the bad guy you root for. Inwardly, he wonders if there isn't more to life than crime, money, women, drugs, and booze. Years before, he could have been a professional hockey player, but the league rejected him when they found him slugging it out with his own teammates. He's secretly, probably unknowingly, been looking for someone to redeem him, to save him from himself.
Ironically, that someone turns out to be a temporary hostage that he and his partners, masked, take from a bank. After they release her, Doug worries she may have seen something that could identify one of the group, and the only way to find out, he figures, is to meet her, become friends with her, and learn what she knows about the crime. He doesn't figure to fall in love with her.
While Affleck is good in his role, believable as a good-hearted criminal, the supporting cast are equally fine. Rebecca Hall plays Claire, the hostage who falls for the nice guy she thinks just works at the gravel pits. She's beautiful and vulnerable, and we feel both sorry yet happy for her plight. Jeremy Renner ("The Hurt Locker") plays James Coughlin, Doug's best friend from childhood and his partner in crime. Jimmy is the opposite of Doug; he's practically a psychopath and wouldn't hesitate at shooting someone to death. Jon Hamm plays FBI Special Agent Adam Frawley, the relentless investigating officer who thinks he's got Doug and Jimmy pegged. Pete Postlethwaite plays Fergie, the "Florist," the local hood who not only deals drugs but sets up the younger fellows on their stickup jobs. Blake Lively plays Krista Coughlin, Jimmy's sister and Doug's ex-girlfriend, now a jealous junkie. And in one brief but memorable scene, Chris Cooper plays Stephen MacRay, Doug's father, now in prison for murder. Doug wonders, Like father like son?
Believe it or not, the tensest scene in the film is not a robbery, a car chase, or a shoot-out but a quiet lunch outdoors on a beautiful afternoon. When it's one of those films where you're rooting for the bad guy, anything can happen.
Having already seen the theatrical version of the movie in a theater, I watched the extended cut on the Blu-ray disc, an edition that adds close to thirty extra minutes to the length. Yes, the additional scenes help a little in establishing and developing Doug's character, but they also make the film too long and drawn out. The theatrical version was already over two hours; do we really need two-and-a-half hours of the same thing? In any case, the Blu-ray disc offers both versions, so watch them and decide for yourself which you prefer.
The important things are that "The Town" contains terrific performances all the way around; a tight, well-paced story, especially in the theatrical version; an abundance of viewer involvement with the characters; and, best of all, plenty of heart. Who knows, with Affleck maybe we've got another Clint Eastwood. Let's hope so.
The folks at Warner Bros. do a respectable job transferring the 2.40:1 ratio movie to Blu-ray disc in what looks to me pretty much as I remember it from the movie theater. The image sometimes displays an intended iron-blue tinge, well captured by the MPEG-4 codec and dual-layer BD50. Definition is good, with excellent close-ups. Colors are fine, too, with a gritty, slightly glassy look to them, set off by deep black levels. And outdoor scenes are especially sharp and bright.
Using lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, the audio engineers make the most of a soundtrack that runs high to dialogue. Yet even though it doesn't have a lot of time to strut its stuff, the sound does trot out some pretty intense moments of mayhem when all the speakers light up. In other words, the surrounds aren't particularly active, but when they are, they are impressive during gunfights and car chases. The rest of the time, the viewer can enjoy a smooth, clear midrange, good dynamics, an extended frequency response, and a wide front-channel stereo spread.
The Blu-ray disc includes both the R-rated theatrical version (125 minutes) and the unrated extended cut (153 minutes) of the movie, plus several extras. The first bonus items are a pair of audio commentaries by director-star Ben Affleck on both versions of the film. Next is a series of "Focus Points," short, behind-the-scenes featurettes that the viewer can watch during the movie or separately. Their titles are self-explanatory: "The Cathedral of Boston," "Nuns with Guns: Filming in the North End," "The Real People of the Town," "Pulling Off the Perfect Heist," "Ben Affleck: Director and Actor," and "The Town," altogether totaling a little over half an hour.
In addition, we get thirteen scene selections; BD-Live access; a slipcover for the BD case; English, French, and Spanish (theatrical version only) spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Finally, since this is a Combo Pack, it includes not only the two Blu-ray movies but the theatrical version on standard-definition DVD and a digital copy for iTunes and Windows Media (the offer expiring December 15, 2011).
"The Town" represents old-fashioned Hollywood filmmaking at its finest. It's got action, romance, and excitement in a well-paced, well-directed plot, with credible, if exaggerated and somewhat stereotyped, characters. It's the kind of film that never pretends to be more than what it is, never goes for the big statement, and never preaches, all the while making us believe in it and be moved by it. Yeah, it's hard-hitting and the language and violence may be offensive to some audiences, but it's worth every minute of it. "Best" movie of the year? I dunno. Certainly among the most enjoyable.
Incidentally, Warner Bros. add a disclaimer to the end of the film, making sure we know that most of the people who live in Charlestown are good, honest, law-abiding citizens and not the robbers, thieves, murderers, hoodlums, hooligans, drug dealers, drug addicts, prostitutes, pimps, alcoholics, gamblers, and morally depraved reprobates depicted in the movie. I'm relieved.