As far as meat-and-potatoes genre flicks go, Ben Affleck's bank-robber-seeking-redemption drama ain't half bad. In the pantheon of serious-minded heist films, The Town is a respectable addition, falling beneath the bar set by Michael Mann's Heat but alongside 2008's The Bank Job. It doesn't have the moral complexity of Affleck's terrific adaptation of Dennis Lehane's neo-noir Gone Baby Gone, but the actor-turned-director isn't working with the same caliber of source material here. Instead, he's co-translated Chuck Hogan's tough-guy novel Prince of Thieves, and the result is a traditional crime-actioner that relies on its authentic Boston settings and top-notch cast to flesh out a predictable storyline.
Pulling triple duty as director, co-writer and star, Affleck plays Doug MacRay, a former NHL rookie whose bad temper landed him back in the blue-collar neighborhood of Charlestown. Now the brains behind a posse of "townie" bank robbers, he's pursued by an angry FBI agent (Mad Men's Jon Hamm) and struggling to find an exit strategy from the "life." Things get more complicated when he falls in love with a bank manager (Rebecca Hall) he took hostage during a heist. Torn between his desire to go straight and his loyalty to his childhood friends, including hot-headed Gem (The Hurt Locker's Jeremy Renner), he agrees to do once last job — rob Fenway Park.
Tight and taut, The Town is surprisingly sure-footed, building tension, making you care about its characters and delivering a trio of well-executed heists. Directing action doesn't come easily to most directors, but Affleck has a deft hand, keeping the pace quick and handling both his actors and drama with skill. It's clear that Gone Baby Gone was no fluke.
But his work behind the camera far outshines his work on the page. The script he penned with Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard is sprawling and clumsy, trading in overheated monologues, uncomfortably hard-boiled dialogue and clichéd plot twists. Affleck can't seem to decide if he's mimicking Scorsese or Mann, and ends up recycling mediocre aspects of the two. In particular, Affleck's character MacRay is too stolid and serious, lacking emotional context. He's like a modern update of a Gary Cooper role. This undermines both the central romance (kind of a bore to begin with) and the final payoff, which boxes itself into only two possible (and banal) resolutions.
Despite these shortcomings, there's much that makes the movie worth your hard-earned dough. Affleck is inventive and authentic in his use of Boston locales, showing how incredibly varied — economically, historically, psychologically — a few miles of real estate can be, and giving his action scenes a distinct freshness.
Even more impressive is his cast, which brings nuance to a wide tapestry of types. From Hamm's driven FBI agent to Renner's scarily hair-trigger thug to a surprisingly trampy Blake Lively to rat-faced Pete Postlethwaite as a menacing florist-crime lord. But it's Chris Cooper as Affleck's imprisoned dad who, in just one scene, steals the movie.
Ultimately, The Town is a little too big for its britches, running long, trying to cram in too many ideas. Affleck shoehorns in cops and robbers, a romance, an anti-hero seeking redemption, a test of loyalty and friendship, and a family secret. It doesn't all work but you've got to give him props for trying ... and succeeding with as much as he does. And here's something I never thought I'd say: I look forward to Ben Affleck's next movie.
Jeff Meyers is a film critic for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.