"The Town" may not have quite the emotional heft of "Gone Baby Gone," Ben Affleck's startlingly assured 2007 directing debut. What it has instead, though, is a greater technical complexity, a larger scope, and the promise of a director who's well on his way to establishing a distinctive vision and voice.
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Affleck also has a way with his actors — unsurprising, having been one himself for so long and not always getting the credit he deserves — and he's once again attracted some tremendous talent: Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Hall, Jon Hamm and Chris Cooper, who leaves his mark in just one powerful scene. Even Blake Lively is surprisingly good, playing against type as a damaged single mom.
But besides directing and co-writing the script with Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard, Affleck himself is at the center of the action in front of the camera, starring as the leader of a Boston bank-heist crew and giving the best leading performance of his career. (Yes, of course everyone enjoyed "Chasing Amy," but previously he'd stood out best as a supporting player in films like "Hollywoodland," "Extract," "Boiler Room" and "Shakespeare in Love.")Video: Ben Affleck takes on ‘Town’ bank robbers (on this page)
And so here he is, in a location he knows well surrounded by actors at the top of their game, making a movie that, like "Gone Baby Gone," oozes authenticity. Locals will split hairs, since Affleck is from Cambridge and the movie takes place in Charlestown — and there's even a thrillingly staged police chase on the narrow streets of the North End, not exactly the easiest place to flee quickly — but it's that kind of insularity that's crucial to the film's themes of secrecy and loyalty. And yes, everyone gets the accent right, something that can often go so horribly wrong in a movie set in New England.
Based on the novel "Prince of Thieves" by Chuck Hogan, "The Town" focuses on a group of lifelong friends living in Charlestown, just across the Zakim Bridge from Boston. Having grown up poor amid the impenetrable cycle of crime and drugs, they haven't got much going for them — except their meticulous ability to rob banks and armored cars and get away clean. Affleck is their leader, Doug MacRay, whose father (Cooper) was a pretty legendary criminal in the neighborhood himself before being sent to prison for life.
Doug had a chance to leave Charlestown and forge a better future as a professional hockey player, but his temper cost him his big break. Now, along with his best friend Jem (Renner) and a couple of other guys, he pulls off these perfectly timed heists for the local crime boss, a surly Irish florist played by the always-welcome character actor Pete Postlethwaite.
During their latest crime, the volatile Jem takes a hostage of bank manager Claire Keesey (Hall), but when they realize later that she lives just a few blocks away in Charlestown, they check up on her to determine whether she might have seen anything. Doug treats her with unexpected kindness, then ends up befriending her, then falls for her — and she falls for him, too, not knowing she's getting involved with the thief who just turned her world upside-down.
Implausible? Too coincidental? Maybe. But if "The Town" is intended as modern-day pulp, full of shady characters and shoot-em-ups, the added drama of a romance makes sense. Plus it provides the film with some sweetness that's a nice counterbalance to the violence, and it allows an opportunity for Affleck's character to open up. The other relationship that reveals what Doug is made of is with Jem, and Renner is as riveting here as he was in "The Hurt Locker." Every time you see him, you know danger can't be far behind, but the unpredictability of what he might do is what makes his scenes exciting to watch.
Hamm has just as strong of a presence in a calmer, cooler way as the FBI agent in charge of investigating this string of robberies. He's quick, verbal and commanding and has one great, crackling showdown with Affleck in an interrogation room. The film's other major showdown takes place at Fenway Park, site of the crew's biggest job yet, and Affleck got intimate access to the cramped, ancient ballyard to shoot his tense climax.
Would a real fan try to steal millions from the Red Sox? Maybe not. But at least Affleck has the means and the talent to do it with style.
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