Ben Affleck's sophomore directorial effort 'The Town' seemed to be a movie that people instantly dubbed "amazing." But I'm not sure why exactly. The film, an adaption of pulp writer Chuck Hogan's crime thriller 'Prince of Thieves' by Affleck and co-writers Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard, centers around Charlestown, Massachusetts, a Boston suburb that also stands as the bank robbing capitol of the world (this is true). That's pretty impressive for a town about the size of a postage stamp.
There are certainly things that are impressive about 'The Town.' It's not exactly cutting edge, either in terms of content or delivery, but like Charlestown itself, it has a kind of workmanlike charm. It centers around a band of ne'er-do-well thieves, led by Affleck and recent Oscar nominee Jeremy Renner. The film opens with a breathless bank heist sequence, in which the thugs wear skull masks, beat a bank manager (played by the great Victor Garber) and take another manager (Rebecca Hall, adorable) hostage before ultimately letting her go.
Affleck, who is a former very bad man who has tried to reform (somewhat), is tasked with "taking care of" the onetime hostage who may be able to help the FBI solve the case. Ben's methods may not be what his buddies had in mind. Of course, Affleck and his cronies are still committing crimes while a dogged FBI Agent (played by Jon Hamm) is in hot pursuit and rapidly closing in on them.
The movie has a certain amount of genre movie bravado; this is undeniable. In particular, the action/suspense set piece crackle with electricity. There's real danger here, real edge. The sequences have the kind of sharpness that Michael Mann, who is given a shout-out in the film, used to specialize in (before he gave up on trivial concerns like spatial geography and being able to see stuff). The problem is that these exciting sequences are so exciting (and there are so damn many of them) that they're virtually all you remember when you're done with the movie, which shouldn't be the case.
You should care more about the romance between the tough guy and the bank manager; but you don't. And it's not just because the robbing of an armored car is more exciting and better executed – it's mainly due to the fact that you never quite buy the relationship between the two characters. For one, Affleck, for all of his atonement, still seems like he's a rough character (especially in the "extended version" included on this disc) and she is, well, not. She's cute and articulate and totally falls for this thug, so quickly, that it's beyond unreasonable. The other thing is that when the two finally do get together, in a physical way, Affleck treats her like she's a rescued kitten. This is a bad dude. He would have been a little more violent. It's a character thing.
And that's where 'The Town' really falls flat – the character front. You barely know anything about the characters. You know that Renner has been in jail for a while, that Affleck has a troubled past (Chris Cooper shows up briefly as his imprisoned father), and that Hall is a very good girl. But beyond that, almost everyone is a cipher. You have no clue why Hamm has such a hard-on for this particular band of villains, besides the fact that it's his job (and no, "it's his job" doesn't count as "convincing motivation").
And I thought that there being an "extended cut" on this disc might address these problems and/or alleviate my heartache (because I really do think that Affleck is a talented dude, his debut feature 'Gone Baby Gone' is totally dynamite), but it really didn't. It's the same movie, slightly expanded, but just as messy. There are some nice flourishes included in the longer cut, which runs almost an additional half-hour, like an extended piece that shows the way that the boys launder their money after the initial heist (hint: drugs and women). There's also a killer little scene right before the final heist that is too good to give away here.
'The Town' remains a sturdy heist thriller, full of wonderful actors and amazing suspense set pieces (filmed, gorgeously, it should be noted, by 'There Will Be Blood' cinematographer Robert Elswit), but given the talent both behind and in front of the camera, it could have been so much more. It got the thrill of the crime, in all its speedy intensity, but failed to develop the lives behind those crimes. Affleck seems enamored with the local color and texture of Charlestown, but seems to leave an awful lot of it out. Maybe somebody stole it?
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The Ultimate Collector's Edition of 'The Town' is probably one of the most confusing sets ever to be released on home video. Three versions of this heist film are included on two Blu-ray discs - the original 125-minute theatrical release, a 153-minute extended cut, and, exclusive to this collector's edition, a 153-minute extended cut with a 10-minute alternate ending. The plethora of options won't put off diehard fans, but they may present quite a quandary for first-time viewers. My advice to those new to 'The Town' would be to familiarize yourself with the theatrical version first, and then take your viewing to each subsequent level, so you can better appreciate the shifts in nuance, tone, and additional character beats.
Of course, for those who already own the first Blu-ray edition of Affleck's film, the age-old upgrade question beckons. Before we address it (in the Final Thoughts section below), let's examine what you get here. A handsomely designed, sturdy box houses three elements - a fold-out disc pack that includes two Blu-rays (the theatrical and extended cut, and extended cut with alternate ending) and one DVD (extended cut with alternate ending); a slickly produced 48-page hardcover book; and a packet of "confidential" documents. Those papers include "A Personal Message from Ben Affleck," in which the actor-director explains his rationale behind constructing the expanded edition of the film; a collection of mock FBI briefing documents and character profiles; a full-size map of Boston/Charlestown that denotes where several events from the movie take place; mug shot cards of the four main characters; three removable tattoos; and a replication of Desmond Elden's employee personnel record from Vericom. The hardcover book is a stylish volume, packed with color photos, background on the story and production, cast profiles, and blurbs about various distinctive aspects of 'The Town,' making it well worth a perusal. All the material has been meticulously constructed, and though some of it is gimmicky (that's the nature of collector's edition swag), its quality quotient is high across the board, making it perfect for the film's devotees.
Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Instructions for a download of an ultraviolet digital copy of the film are also included in this impressive package. In addition, there's an exclusive, all-new documentary, "'The Town': A Director's Journey" (described below), as well as further audio commentary by Affleck during the alternate ending.
The good news here is that the brand new extended cut with alternate ending enjoys the vast real estate of its own 50GB dual-layer disc. The previous Blu-ray crammed both the theatrical cut and extended cut on the same disc (also included here), which compromised picture quality ever so slightly - there's a fair amount of crush, some artifacting, and some blurriness in darker sequences. (But these instances aren't exactly prevalent, and most viewers probably won't notice this type of stuff.) Though I challenge anyone to point out major differences between the two discs with regard to image clarity, those with eagle eyes might be able detect a few minor improvements on the new disc, but certainly nothing to crow about in this review. In the final analysis, all three transfers rate very highly and will please any high-def enthusiast.
On the commentary, Affleck says the film stock he and cinematographer Robert Elswit employed exudes a blue tint, with heavy contrast, and that stuff looks really amazing here. The resulting texture lends the film a spectacular appearance that more than compensates for the other, glitchier technical problems. 'The Town' is a handsome film, for sure, and the transfer more than does it justice.
On the plus side of things, fleshtones seem very lifelike, the few colors that do appear (like the menacing nun masks the bank robbers use for a heist) have a certain amount of pop, and detail, on the whole, is excellent.
The problems with the original transfers have been overblown, a knee-jerk response to just knowing both versions of the movie have their own encode more than any actual problems with the transfers themselves. Bottom line: It's hard to imagine anyone expressing too much of a beef with any of the three transfers in this ultimate collector's edition. They're all pretty damn good.
The audio tracks here are identical to the ones on the initial Blu-ray release, and they, quite simply, kick ass. There are two DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks - a 24-bit mix for the theatrical cut and a 16-bit deal for the extended cut. Both sound really, really good.
I actually listened quite intently during the extended cut to see if I could notice a decrease in the audio quality, which can happen if the scenes are reinstated in a haphazard manner without the proper time to be finessed, like the theatrical cut. But after watching both cuts, I can honestly say I'm not really certain there is much of a difference in the mixes.
Both tracks are lossless and both have a whole lot going on: this is an action-centered film and the mixes are properly dynamic. Everything is incredibly lively, but the tracks never feel busy – instead, you really feel every gunshot, every squealing tire, and every atmospheric Charlestown character that shuffles around in the background. The surround tracks are expertly used, and every detail of every scene stands out as its own articulate sonic layer without any bleed-over or messiness.
Subtler elements like dialogue (always peppered with the F-word) are crystal clear and always well prioritized. So basically: this is a really great audio track, whichever version of the movie you watch. Totally great.
A nice selection of supplements take us behind the scenes of the film and provide an in-depth director's perspective. There's an option to have an icon pop up and indicate which scenes in the extended version are "new," which is a helpful feature, if imprecise (sometimes the logo will stay up too long or pop up too early). And if you watch the commentary with Affleck, he'll tell you which scenes are new.
I'm still not thrilled with 'The Town,' but I can appreciate the craft that went into the movie. The "extended cut" included here does do some things to alleviate my heartache, but the movie remains messy and largely unconvincing. Ben Affleck, in his capacity as a director, does a bang-up job, but there could have been greater emphasis on character and less on kick-ass action sequences. Chances are, though, if you loved the movie, then you'll love its Blu-ray treatment. Despite some minor video problems, the audio sounds like a million bucks and it's anchored by a great commentary track that can be heard on all three cuts of the movie.
Regarding the double dip issue, if you're a true aficionado of 'The Town' and you can afford the upcharge, this ultimate collector's edition is definitely worth a second go-round, but it's not necessarily an essential upgrade. The alternate ending is intriguing, but not mind-blowing, and opinions surely will be all over the map as to whether it improves or harms the film. The new documentary is also well done, and the collectibles are a cut above some of the clutter that graces similar editions of other movies. The transfer on the extended cut with alternate ending looks practically identical to the other two transfers on the original disc, and the audio is the same, too. So this ultimate collector's edition is really for that ultimate fan, not the video enthusiast or audiophile looking for serious tech enhancement.
That said, if you don't own a previous edition of 'The Town' and you're serious about your movies, I'd still recommend picking up this ultimate collector's edition. It's a classy offering and worth the extra cost. But if you just want to watch the movie and that's it, then the original Blu-ray release will surely suffice. Either way, this edition of 'The Town' receives a hearty recommendation.