From 'Good Will Hunting' To 'The Equalizer' — Who Gets Boston Right?

Denzel Washington and Nash Edgerton appear in a scene from "The Equalizer" set in Boston. (Scott Garfield/AP, Sony, Columbia Pictures)
Denzel Washington and Nash Edgerton appear in a scene from "The Equalizer" set in Boston. (Scott Garfield/AP, Sony, Columbia Pictures)

Bostonians, how we love our town. And as the years have gone by, Hollywood has loved the Hub too. Why the love?

Some of it has to do with the scenic, historical richness our city has to offer, some of it has to do with (the controversial) tax break incentives to use Boston as a backlot, some of it has to do with the waning power the unions hold and much of it has to do with Boston's deep and storied criminal past that has become a romantic obsession in Tinseltown.

So used it is, that Dennis Lehane, who's penned many crime novels set here that have become successful film adaptations also shot here ("Mystic River," "Gone Baby Gone" and "Shutter Island"), flipped the setting for the script of "The Drop" from Dorchester to Brooklyn.

The latest Hollywood product to call the Hub home, "The Equalizer," opened this weekend. While it's not likely to be a Boston-branded movie, it does make excellent use of the city, balancing the dark criminal past and peripheral pockets that still persist today with the sweeping gentrification.

It's a neat and true testament to see the unpretentious working class streets of East Boston (where Denzel Washington's equalizer lives in a humble apartment) coupled with an Edward Hopper-esque diner in Chelsea offset by the wide shots of the Zakim Bridge and a high-rise criminal perch with panoramic views of the Financial District and the Seaport. The film also boasts the single best use of a Boston Herald delivery truck as a plot device.

The funny thing about "The Equalizer" is that it gets Boston right, even though it's a movie that could have been set anywhere. Other movies like "The Departed," "Shutter Island" and "Mystic River" (the first two directed by Martin Scorsese with the latter directed by Clint Eastwood) are largely ingrained here, but don't have the physical sense of the city as much as the general criminal attitude of the cloistered neighborhoods they take place in. It's a foreigner's view of our city. Location scouts come and scour and look for areas that 'look like' or 'feel like,' but their locations don't feel true to us.

Even though Scorsese's "Departed" won Oscar gold and was retrofitted by scribe William Monahan to leverage Boston and Whitey Bulger's legacy as an FBI rat (it was based on the popular 2002 Hong Kong thriller, "Infernal Affairs"), not much of our city's true character shone through.

Watch a scene from the beginning of "The Departed":

The film begins promisingly enough digging at our racist past with a brief, yet pointed recap of the notorious busing imbroglio in the '70s. But beyond that, what we are served are oodles of obligatory shots of the luminous gold capital dome and gorgeous harbor-side views. The gangster watering holes in Southie feel like slumming yuppie cafes dirtied-up by someone newly acquainted with the term 'dive bar.' And let's not tawk about the Bahston accents that are overused and forcibly shoehorned—though it's a relief to see that local boys Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg tackle it with the most authenticity.

In short, "The Departed" is a great movie—that didn't get Boston. "The Verdict" (1982) is another. Even "Good Will Hunting" (1997) felt like a Beantown air-kiss and it was starred and written by then on-the-way-up homeboys Ben Affleck and his dynamic buddy, Damon. But it would be Affleck behind the lens of the camera who would ultimately, in the current craze of Boston mob-land, get the city right in symbol, texture and heart.

"Gone Baby Gone" (2007) was a throwback, that got the dark gritty underbelly of Boston right, though it protracted the notion that the Hub is a hotbed of criminal activity run by the Irish. Affleck's follow up, "The Town" (2010), was similar, but a more commercial affair that made excellent use of Fenway Park and had an exhilaratingly choreographed car chase scene through the North End. However, the town and gown dynamic, which so propelled "Hunting" and was reached for in “The Town,” came up short.

Ben Affleck and Matt Damon in 1997, soon after "Good Will Hunting" was released. The two friends spent their high school days in Cambridge, Mass. (Yukio Gion/AP)
Ben Affleck and Matt Damon in 1997, soon after "Good Will Hunting" was released. The two friends spent their high school days in Cambridge, Mass. (Yukio Gion/AP)

Other crime staples, "Monument Ave." and "Southie" (both 1998), dug at the same underbelly with mixed degrees of success. Everyone was treading on Bulger's murderous legacy, which was romanticized until it was revealed he was a snitch (the original name for "Monument Ave.").

Before there was "The Departed" or Whitey even truly surfaced as a force to be reckoned with, George Vincent Higgins nailed the genre-to-be with the 1970 novel "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," subsequently made into the same titled movie in 1973. Higgins, who was born in Brockton and worked as a defense attorney for clients including G. Gordon Liddy, had his finger on the pulse of mobsters and informants.

The film does a deft job of not only orienting Boston from a postcard aspect, but also acting as a veritable time capsule of the mean streets of Boston in the '70s, with scenes of the titular Eddie taking in a hockey game at the old Garden (Bobby Orr was only 24), the old Boston Bowl in Dorchester, Government Center (which didn't look so ugly back then) and the seedy old Kentucky Tavern on Mass. Ave. and Newbury where Tower Records and Best Buy once resided. Most intriguing is the Dedham Plaza shopping center, site of a gun transaction, with a Woolworths looming in background. The final scene in a pre-Big Dig tunnel brings back memories of the old Boston, before revival and high-cost condos.

A scene from "The Thomas Crown Affair." (Courtesy)
A scene from "The Thomas Crown Affair." (Courtesy)

The best postcard rendering of the city came few years earlier (1968) with the breezy "Thomas Crown Affair" staring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway, which pretty much captured the character of Boston proper better than any other film. The film that is imbued with the deepest Boston crime legacy has to be William Friedkin's 1978 "The Brink's Job," a take on the true 1950 heist. His crew had notable struggles with the unions and in a purportedly related event, reels of the film were taken from a Back Bay editing studio by armed men--life imitating art, imitating life.

Next up, Whitey and the Boston crime scene get another whirl with Johnny Depp as the notorious crime boss in "Black Mass," based on the book by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill. Since it's a flashback in time, it'll be interesting to see if director Scott Cooper ("Crazy Heart" and "Out of the Furnace") gets Beantown as right as "Eddie" and "Thomas" did.

Tom Meek is a longtime contributing film critic at The Boston Phoenix, Cambridge Day, WBUR’s ARTery, the Charleston City Paper and New England Cable News, and the president of the Boston Society of Film Critics. His short stories have appeared in SLAB, Open Windows, Web Del Sol, Slow Trains and Thieves Jargon. Tom is also a writing instructor at Grub Street in Boston and rides his bike everywhere. His Twitter handle is TBMeek3.


Tom Meek Contributor, The ARTery
In addition to The ARTery, Tom Meek's reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in The Boston Phoenix, Boston Globe, The Rumpus, Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal.



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