Ben Affleck directs conventional and sometimes hackneyed material with deftness, wit and a hearty dose of local seasoning in the new cops-and-robbers drama “The Town.”
A testament to his skills, the film is solid big-screen genre entertainment, and even a bit more.
The film is Affleck’s sophomore directorial release, following the accoladed “Gone Baby Gone,” and this time Affleck, who also stars and shares screenplay credits, has adapted Chuck Hogan’s “Prince of Thieves” and shifted his Boston setting to Charlestown.
The neighborhood’s claim to fame: producing the nation’s greatest number of bank and armored-car robbers. Affleck turns this pulpy distinction into both action thrills and site-specific social drama.
Affleck’s character, Doug MacRay, leads a group of hardened thieves. Jem (Jeremy Renner), a 24/7 powderkeg and Doug’s friend, is the gang’s other prominent member.
During a bank job, Jem takes employee Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) hostage. The men free Claire, but soon worry that she may have witnessed something that the FBI could use to nail them.
To assess matters, Doug plants himself in a laundry, where Claire, failing to recognize him as the masked robber who recently held a gun to her head, warms to his charms. Soon, the two are dating.
Claire’s decency awakens Doug’s redemption potential, and Doug decides to leave Charlestown with Claire. That’s a plan that neither Jem nor crime boss Fergie (Pete Postlethwaite) will stand for.
With its multithread story, mean-streets setting and codes-of-silence themes, the film recalls Martin Scorsese’s gangland dramas and Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River,” although it doesn’t achieve the intensity and impact of the former or the tragic swell of the latter.
It also suffers from cliche overload, with the love story and the persistent FBI agent (Jon Hamm) particularly silly.
But Affleck’s directorial prowess is impressive. This is a satisfying mainstream movie that contains efficiently staged action, dramatic tension and interesting bits about everything from gentrification to digital-age robbery techniques.
Regarding local color, perhaps only Charlestown residents can pass valid judgment on authenticity, but Affleck, seemingly aiming for a mix of the earthy and the mythic, presents a universe thick with something deeper than vocal inflections.
Performances are in some cases spectacular, with the screenplay giving the men the richest material.
Affleck isn’t a great actor, but his sincerity serves the Doug character effectively. Renner, a great actor, ups your anxiety level when simply blinking in the Jem role.
Chris Cooper, as Doug’s incarcerated father, also is superb.
The female characters are sadly limited to Claire, a good-woman contrivance that wastes the talented Hall, and Claire’s flip side, the druggy homegirl Krista, played not badly by Blake Lively.
The Town (3 stars)
Starring Ben Affleck, Rebecca Hall, Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm
Written by Peter Craig, Ben Affleck, Aaron Stockard
Directed by Ben Affleck
Running time 2 hours 10 minutes