“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.
Affleck has a way with 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 (“Gossip Girl”) is surprisingly good, playing against type as a damaged single mom.
Besides directing and co-writing the script, Affleck 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.
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 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 bank manager (Hall) as hostage, 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? Maybe. But it provides the film with some sweetness that’s a nice counterbalance to the violence, and 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, and 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.