Proving for a third time that his Oscar win back in 1998 for Good Will Hunting alongside hetero lifemate Matt Damon was no fluke, his latest two writing endeavors find Ben Affleck with a new partner in crime, Aaron Stockard. With Affleck behind the lens first on Gone Baby Gone and now The Town, it’s fair to say that behind the camera is a much better fit for him than trying to emote in front of it.
Not that there’s anything wrong with Affleck’s acting skills, but his direction is just far more inspired than his acting chops. In fact, this may be one of the better performances we’ve seen from Affleck in years. Adapting Chuck Hogan’s novel, Prince of Thieves (with a title change probably intended not to confuse people with the Robin Hood movie), we find that all the skill he brought to the table with Gone Baby Gone was no fluke. While it may not be my bet for this year’s Best Picture, I certainly see a nomination in sight even if the ending is pretty much a standard issue happy Hollywood ending.
Affleck stars as Doug MacRay who has lived in Charlestown, Massachusetts his entire life. Growing up in the projects of Boston can be quite a burden but the people seem to wear their inheritance on their sleeves. We learn from the opening sequence that Charlestown produces more bank robbers than anywhere else in the U.S. Doug is one of these. Doug and his friends Albert “Gloansy” Magloan (Gone Baby Gone’s own Bubba), unofficial red-shirt Desmond Elden (Owen Burke), and the loose cannon of the group, James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner hot off of last year’s Best Picture, The Hurt Locker), have just robbed a bank and taken Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall, Vicky Christina Barcelona and The Prestige) hostage.
FBI S.A. Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm, Mad Men) working alongside partner Dino Campio (Lost’s Man in Black, Titus Welliver) are keeping tabs on these boys after they discover that one of them has some mighty interesting sick days at work, aside from the fact that Frawley knows they will “never get 24 hour surveillance unless one of them converts to Islam.” Meanwhile, Doug has confiscated Claire’s driver’s license during the robbery and starts stalking her to find out if she’s a threat to keep James from tying up their loose end with a bullet. Obviously Doug starts to fall for Claire after he learns enough that they’re all in the clear and he does everything in his power to keep her out of harm’s way while Frawley keeps trying to get her to throw the whole gang under a bus. All the while, the boys are gearing up for one last job set up by local Irish florist gangster “Fergie” Colm (Pete Postlethwaite).
Surprisingly Affleck has learned quite well from a few of his past directors. From Kevin Smith he seems to have picked up an ear for natural sounding dialogue even if the accents can sometimes get in the way of understanding the conversations. And although Reindeer Games was a so-bad-it’s-good type movie, he can direct the hell out of a chase sequence thanks to some time spent with John Frankenheimer. Also of note, a shoot-out between the boys and the FBI in Fenway Park is filmed so that it’s never too busy or confusing and you can tell what’s going on, particularly with police dressed in black raid gear and the boys in white paramedic outfits.
Unfortunately there’s a subplot involving Chris Cooper as Doug’s imprisoned father that proves fatal to the film’s denouement and as I mentioned about the Desmond character before, he is never on screen until he winds up getting shot. When a character isn’t even given something to do during the action scenes this should absolutely never come as a spoiler. And while Affleck gets hilarious usage out of the word “ostentatious,” the film never winds up feeling that way even if Affleck and Stockard can’t avoid a cop-out ending with no emotional punch.
Walking out of the screening someone told me the original ending to the book and I am sure that this could’ve been a far greater film had Affleck either cast someone else in the lead for the payoff to work or stuck with the author’s ending which fits the film’s tone much better.
Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures