Ben Affleck opens his satisfying, flavorful, Boston-accented caps-and-rahbbahs crime drama The Town (opening Sept. 17) with an aerial view of the Bunker Hill Monument, a stark obelisk poking at the sky in Charlestown, Mass. The monument commemorates one of the first major battles of the American Revolution. But the establishing shot also serves two other purposes: It identifies a neighborhood described on screen as infamous for producing more bank and armored-car robbers in one square mile than anywhere else in the U.S. And it anchors viewer awareness that the Boston-steeped actor-director-screenwriter has, after some struggle, figured out a reliably rewarding trajectory for his career. First with his 2007 success with Gone Baby Gone and now with The Town, Affleck the director, it turns out, has a real feel for making movies about atmospheric grit and the collision of urban law, order, and disorder. If the films are set in his childhood hometown, so much the better, because the homeboy does love paying visual attention to the city’s tough, thin-lipped Irish faces. Affleck the actor, meanwhile, does his best work playing flawed characters, surrounded by strong colleagues.
Done and done. In The Town, Affleck (who also co-wrote the screenplay, based on Chuck Hogan’s 2004 novel, Prince of Thieves) prowls his turf with authority. The actor plays Doug, the ambivalent leader of a practiced heist ring, all of whom show theatrical flair: The team’s choice of on-the-job masks tends toward Grinning Ape or Cackling Nun. Their otherwise successful Ape Caper is marred, though, by the discovery that Claire (Rebecca Hall), the bank manager they briefly held hostage, lives nearby in Charlestown. Did she see too much? Doug’s volatile ex-con pal Jem (Jeremy Renner) would just as soon eliminate the potential problem with a bang. But Doug opts for caution and says he’ll check her out. Oh, lovers of romantic crime thrillers, he does. The two fall in love. (You’ve seen that already, in the trailer.)
The Town is like that — a rich, dark, pulpy mess of entanglements that fulfills all the requirements of the genre, and is told with an ease and gusto that make the pulp tasty. Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm is solid as a he-means-business FBI guy; Gossip Girl‘s Blake Lively is pleasingly grungy as Doug’s drug-dealing ex-girlfriend, who is also Jem’s sister. Everyone knows everyone on the street, and everyone knows how to keep his trap shut.
Affleck nails the rhythms of coexistence between neighborhood crooks and regular joes. His instincts are also right in casting Renner in the role of Jem, the local baddie with a short fuse, and letting the effortlessly magnetic actor steer the pace of the action, hinting at danger even when Jem’s just nursing a brew. With the thrum of unromanticized eff-’em he brings to the part, Renner supplies the jolt that keeps Affleck on his toes, both as an actor and as a director. The Town is the good work of a guy on a path of discovery, with Boston as the artist’s own Freedom Trail. A-