The trick to enjoying The Town, Ben Affleck’s follow-up to his impressive 2007 directing debut, Gone, Baby, Gone, is to expect nothing but pulpy entertainment. A tightly constructed package containing three armed robberies, two hair-raising car chases and one magnificently unlikely romance, the movie coasts on atmosphere, accents and unlimited aggression. Harnessed to a narrative that’s only marginally more plausible than Pete Postlethwaite playing a romantic lead, the movie’s characters follow fates that permit no surprises.
But while their destinations are plainly telegraphed, their journeys remain engaging, mostly because Affleck is an efficient choreographer of movement and a knowing wrangler of actors. Back once more in his hometown of Boston (increasingly the go-to location for modern noirs about old-fashioned tribal loyalties), Affleck — assisted by writers Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard — transforms Chuck Hogan’s novel Prince of Thieves into a classically structured heist movie.
After informing us that the ferociously no-collar district of Charlestown houses more bank robbers per square inch than most federal penitentiaries, the movie introduces us to four of them in action. Doug MacRay (Affleck), the comparatively cool-headed member of the crew, plans meticulously and executes flawlessly. His hair-trigger sidekick and oldest friend, Jem (Jeremy Renner), may be a fearless loose cannon, but he once served nine years rather than snitch. As for the remaining two members of the gang — near invisible unless stopping bullets or clubbing security guards — I couldn’t pick them out of a lineup, which is probably what the casting director, Lora Kennedy, was aiming for.
When that initial bank robbery results in Jem grabbing the manager, Claire (Rebecca Hall), as a temporary hostage, Doug volunteers to shadow her after her release to ensure she keeps her distance from the FBI. Of course he falls in love, and not just because she’s gorgeous: She’s also out of his league, and one of the satisfying things about The Town is its ability to convey the tremors of class interaction. Claire, with her community service and her tailored suits, reminds Doug how much he dislikes his roots, his associations, his life — how much he wants out.
Seasoned with pungent dialogue and Robert Elswit’s hard-boiled cinematography, The Town offers its actors more than just an opportunity to mangle their vowels. Blake Lively almost overcomes her personality deficit to play a slatternly single mom with a torch for Doug, while Postlethwaite is grimily vicious as a florist-cum-money launderer.
Affleck locks himself into a role heavy with regrets — a missing mother, an incarcerated father, a failed hockey career — but the standout is Renner. Spitting dialogue like hairballs and bouncing on the balls of his feet, he makes Jem as unstable as an IED.
Only Jon Hamm, as the harried Fed on Doug’s tail, seems a little lost in the film’s hectic rhythms, his Fred Flintstone stubble growing darker along with the screenplay. But he’s a minor burr beneath the saddle of a movie that looks working-class pretty and adheres to an honor-among-thieves code. Oscar Wilde, who held that a sense of aesthetics was more important to human development than a sense of morality, would have loved it. (Recommended)