A worthy if decidedly less ambitious effort from actor-turned-director Ben Affleck, "The Town" doesn't quite match the thematic complexity or moral ambiguity that made his first feature, 2007's "Gone Baby Gone
," or 2006's like-minded "The Departed
" so very good. What we have here is more firmly rooted in formula, albeit with a capable, even impressive, handle on strong, old-fashioned storytelling. Affleck grips his audience and keeps them enthralled for the duration, interspersing rattlingly intense action and bank heist intrigue with memorable, if familiar, character-based histrionics. Now that he has cemented his abilities as a filmmaker, it will be interesting to see if he expands his horizons beyond crime dramas set in Boston.
The burg of Charlestown, it is noted up front, has the most bank robberies and armored car thefts in all of the country. One such criminal is Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck), a tortured soul with a mother who walked out on the family when he was five and a father (Chris Cooper) who is in prison serving consecutive life sentences. With loose-cannon best friend Jim Coughlin (Jeremy Renner) and cronies Gloansy (Slaine) and Desmond (Owen Burke) by his side, Doug leads the way on a masked bank hold-up that leaves them with duffle bags of cash and, briefly, a female hostage, manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall). As FBI Special Agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm) investigates the crime, Doug begins secretly keeping tabs on Claire's whereabouts, curious which authorities she's talked to and what she's told them. When they officially meet at a laundromat, it is the start of a relationship between the twoone that Claire has no way of knowing is built on Doug's lies and deception. As they start to fall for each other, Doug begins preparations for what he intends to be his final bank heist before skipping town. In actuality, his trouble is just beginning after local mafioso type Fergie (Pete Postlethwaite) makes it clear his business with Doug isn't quite finished yet.
In "The Town," writer-director Ben Affleck and co-writers Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard (adapting from the novel "Prince of Thieves" by Chuck Hogan) ask that the viewer follow and be on the side of a protagonist who commits major crimes not out of necessity, but out of a subconscious duty to follow where his family has previously tread. Insofar as guys of this sort go, Doug is relatively likable all the samehe's certainly more level-headed than Jim, who exhibits homicidal tendencieseven when we know how wrong it is for him to be stringing Claire along, not revealing his true intentions or the disturbing past event that links them. The film is successful in not turning Doug into a completely despicable cretin, yet when the time comes for him to try to make amends to a betrayed Claire or outrun police on narrow neighborhood streets, one has to question why we should nonetheless want him to win the girl and get away with the latest robbery. It's a tricky quandary since, for all intents and purposes, Doug should be behind bars.
As the man at the helm, Affleck isn't without a few miscalculations in his design. There is a late decision Doug makes that places Claire in an unfair, ethically shady position, and it doesn't sit well. Neither, for that matter, does an ending visual and narration drippy enough to have come from a Nicholas Sparks adaptation. As for the rest of the picture, it is satisfyingly gritty and shrewd, characterized by an adroitly depicted settingit is clear Affleck knows Boston through and throughand an ensemble that's in top form, bar none. The expertly shot and constructed heist sequences, spaced out evenly at the beginning, middle and end of the film, are the dazzling centerpieces, as taut as a vise grip. An is-it-or-isn't-it red herring involving Jim's fighting Irish tattoothe one detail Claire remembers seeing from the bank robberyadditionally works up ample tension in a scene where he crashes a lunch date between her and Doug. By far the most indelible moment in the whole movie, however, is a small but crucial one, saying so much about the human condition and the frailty of life. Shielding himself from cops behind a mailbox and knowing that he is about to die, one character (who shall remain nameless) grabs a half-drank soda lying near him on the ground and savors one long, final sip.
Acting-wise, Ben Affleck (2009's "State of Play
") effectively underplays everything about the lead role of Doug MacRay save for the unmistakably thick area accent, and he has surrounded himself with a great set of people. Jeremy Renner (2009's "The Hurt Locker
") is scarily magnetic as Jim Coughlin, devoted to his lifelong friendship with Doug while losing himself in his criminal profession. Rebecca Hall (2008's "Frost/Nixon
") is lovely as Claire, getting wrapped up in a romance she doesn't yet realize is headed for a fall. As Doug's imprisoned father Stephen, Chris Cooper (2010's "Remember Me
") leaves a tough, uncompromising impression with only a single scene of screen time. Most stunning of all is Blake Lively (2006's "Accepted
"), disappearing completely into the part of drug-addled, free-wheeling young mother Krista, Jim's sister. It's a slightly underwritten role, not as fully developed as Amy Ryan's similar Oscar-nominated character in "Gone Baby Gone
," but one that Lively tackles with everything she's got. It's quite a breakthrough for her, proving there's far more layers to her talent than TV's "Gossip Girl" and two "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants
" movies suggest.
A well-made B-movie dressed in A-list duds, "The Town" isn't a great piece of art and it has no notable messages to impart. What it does have is a crackerjack script that keeps things from seeming too routine, a cool flavor and style with a pronounced backdrop, and several technically proficient bursts of action and violence. Fans of the crime genre will be very pleased, happy to enjoy an adult-minded thriller after a summer of underwhelming explosions and special effects. Skillful but never actually original, "The Town" gets the job done without averting expectations. It's not one of the best of its type, but then, they rarely are.