The behind-the-camera talent Ben Affleck displayed so bracingly in "Gone Baby Gone" is confirmed, if not significantly advanced, in "The Town." Again proving a fine director of actors (this time with himself in a starring role), Affleck delivers another potent, serious-minded slice of pulp set on Boston's meanest streets, where loyalty among thieves runs thicker than blood. But while it pulses with atmosphere, this tale of grand larceny, unlikely romance and betrayal sacrifices some of "Baby's" troubling ambiguity and emotional force in pursuit of broader, more action-driven appeal. Results should bag Warners an appreciably large payday in wide release.
From Martin Scorsese's "The Departed" to the Dennis Lehane adaptations "Mystic River" and "Gone Baby Gone," the past decade has been a strong one for pictures set in and around certain violent enclaves of Boston. Without skimping on the flavorsome accents, pungent atmosphere and fatalistic undertow that come with the territory, "The Town," with its suggestion of the possibility of escape from a life of tribally ordered violence, represents a slightly more optimistic example of this crime-movie subgenre.
Based on Chuck Hogan's novel "Prince of Thieves," the film informs us at the outset that Charlestown, Mass., though only one square mile in size, has produced more bank robbers and armored-car thieves than any other part of the U.S. One of these is cool-headed Doug MacRay (Affleck), who -- along with his screw-loose best friend, James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner), and two other partners -- pulls off the efficient, unnerving bank job that opens the picture. The sequence is distinguished by its fastidious attention to detail, from the bandits' use of bleach to remove DNA traces to the ghoulish masks they wear, and ends with an agitated James taking bank employee Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) hostage, only to release her, unharmed, after a few hours of driving.
An FBI team led by Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm) quickly fingers the four crooks -- all repeat offenders who have skillfully evaded capture -- but struggles to find evidence that will make a conviction stick. Meanwhile, in the story's most intriguing development, James' ongoing paranoia about how much Claire saw leads Doug to seek out the traumatized young woman; after some awkwardness in a laundromat meet-cute, Claire warms to this handsome stranger, unaware he's the same guy who coaxed her into cracking open a vault.
It's not hard to see why Claire would be charmed by Doug; we're charmed by him, too. That speaks well of Affleck's natural likability but leaches some complexity and danger from his conception of this supposedly hardened but terribly romantic criminal. By contrast, Renner's James seethes with barely repressed violence; his reaction to seeing Doug and Claire together for the first time has an edgy, unpredictable tension the picture as a whole could use more of.
And so the love of a good woman becomes the catalyst for Doug's decision to ditch his life of crime, but Charlestown doesn't surrender its own easily, and neither James nor their rigid crime boss, Fergie (Pete Postlethwaite), intends to let Doug make a clean getaway. Doug's efforts to extricate himself from his bloody destiny -- inherited from his father and tied to a childhood trauma that doesn't feel dramatically well integrated -- power the film's eventful second half, during which the team attempts two more armed robberies, leading to explosive standoffs with the police and the FBI.
If Doug already seems too far down the road to redemption to lend "The Town" much traction as a character piece, it has outstanding virtues as a straightforward crime procedural. As in "Gone Baby Gone," Affleck conveys the ferocity of violence onscreen without resorting to gratuitous excess, and the frenzied gunplay of the multiple action sequences -- aided by Robert Elswit's rough-and-ready cinematography and Dylan Tichenor's agile editing -- strikes an ideal balance between kineticism and clarity.
Pic has a real feel for the neighborhood and uses it inventively; a car chase at the midway point derives much of its impact from the claustrophobia of Charlestown's narrow lanes and high walls. Local slang peppers the tangy script (credited to Affleck, his "Baby" co-scribe Aaron Stockard and Peter Craig), which revels in the sort of satisfying monologues and well-timed comebacks that tie it to an older, more classical storytelling tradition.
Hall, a sympathetic presence from the get-go, is eventually sidelined in a role that grows more conventional as the film proceeds, while "Gossip Girl's" Blake Lively, almost unrecognizable here, has fierce, pained moments as the moll and single mother Doug has tossed aside. Postlethwaite, wrapping his lips around an Irish accent, radiates a sadistic malevolence, and Chris Cooper makes a brief, somewhat pro-forma appearance as Doug's father, emerging from the shadow of a jail cell to impress upon us the steep price of a life of crime.