With Ben Affleck, Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Hall, Jon Hamm, Pete Postlethwaite. Directed by Ben Affleck. Rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, some sexuality and drug use. 125 minutes.
As an an actor, Ben Affleck has had a so-so career, getting some leading roles and occasionally clicking with audiences. As a director, though, his debut with “Gone Baby Gone” in 2007 announced the arrival of a major talent. Now he’s back with THE TOWN, another gritty crime drama set in Boston, and once again he hits it out of the park. In this case, the baseball metaphor is especially apt, since the climactic robbery takes place at Fenway Park.
We’re told that the working class neighborhood of Charlestown has produced more bank robbers than any other place in the country, and then proceed to follow a daring robbery of a Harvard Square bank led by Doug MacRay (Affleck). They’re all wearing masks, but the loose cannon of the bunch, James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner), decides to take a hostage as they make their getaway. Under Doug’s cool leadership, she is released unharmed, but James worries about what she may have seen or heard. Doug says he’ll handle it. He meets Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) and discovers she’s not a threat, but is attracted to her. Soon a romance is in bloom, although she remains clueless as to where they really first met. Meanwhile, FBI agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm) is doing whatever it takes to track down the gang and put them away.
In many ways, the film, based on the novel “Prince of Thieves” by Chuck Hogan, is about the battle for Doug’s soul. Once a prospect for a professional hockey career, he instead went into the family crime business. He tells Claire that his father (Chris Cooper) has moved away, when he’s really serving time in prison. The local crime kingpin (a chilling Pete Postlethwaite) operates a flower shop, from which he ruthlessly directs the action. When Doug wants out, it’s made clear that his refusal is a death sentence not only for him but for Claire as well. Doug has no choice but to go along with the audacious heist at Fenway.
Affleck succeeds here on several levels. As an action thriller, “The Town” provides three great sequences, from the opening robbery to a car chase through the North End to the climactic heist and its fallout. However he also makes Doug sympathetic without pretending that most of these thugs aren’t just that, vicious and greedy louts who care nothing for the lives they destroy. Redeeming Doug is less about whitewashing his crimes than in showing him choosing to take his life in a different direction. He earns our respect; he doesn’t demand it.
Renner is suitably scary as the sidekick whose answer to every problem is violence, while Hamm provides the square-jawed hero who realizes he can’t win by force alone. Hall has the toughest job, having to make Claire credible instead of a patsy, so that her choices are dramatically satisfying. Taking the lead, Affleck gives his best performance since the little-seen “Hollywoodland,” showing that he may be better played flawed characters than conventional leading roles.
“The Town” closes with a statement that there are many good people who live in Charlestown and the film is dedicated to them, but the movie is about the bad guys. We get the thrill of forbidden actions and the all-too-real consequences of living outside of the rule of law. “Gone Baby Gone” was no fluke. Affleck has arrived as a director.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.