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The Town

After the utter brilliance of Gone Baby Gone, Director Ben Affleck must have had a hard time figuring out a follow-up project. Luckily, actor Ben Affleck had laid low for a few years, rebuilding his reputation after a string of (some unjustly) maligned performances. And writer Ben Affleck, well, it was time to get back in the game after spending years polishing his Oscar.

All that snark on my part is just to remind you that Affleck really is a major talent, and if The Town isn't a major film, it's still one worth checking out. Based on the novel Prince of Thieves, the movie really offers few surprises but a decent amount of entertainment. It's a somewhat gritty tale of blue-collar bank robbers getting a little too much heat on them, and the tension that arises when the nominal brains of the operation, Doug MacRay (Affleck), wants out.

A risky love story helps form the spine of The Town, as MacRay gets close to a potential witness to their last job. Even though the gang all wore skull masks, assistant bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) noticed a tattoo on the back of one's neck.

To find out if she knows anything, MacRay spends time observing her, which turns to awkward friendship than actual deep feelings. Always a sensitive boy, MacRay still finds this rush of emotion a sign that it's time to get out, especially when compared to the emptiness of his flirtations with his best friend's sister, a drugged up single mother played huskily by Blake Lively.

It's that best friend that really gets in the way, the wild-eyed James Coughlin, given nervous energy and menace by Jeremy Renner. He wants things the way they never were but should have been, and when the local crime boss keeps hiring their crew, that's just a sign that things are just fine.

Affleck stages the robberies with a good sense of urgency, and though the camera whips around, it never loses the thread of the action. More importantly for audience interest, each heist follows a different plan and a different rhythm, one ending in a pretty good car chase with a good button to it.

Like Gone Baby Gone, The Town benefits from making the neighborhoods of Boston palpable. There's a sense of the decency of the people - also given us as a reminding post-script - but also the greyness of the day to day, with no better example of it than a public ice skating rink that the city government can't afford to keep iced.

That detail comes back for a denoument that might feel a little too convenient, and occasionally throughout the movie Affleck makes other little missteps. Yet they're also all gestures to give the audience something meaty, such as a prison visit from MacRay to his father, played by Chris Cooper. It doesn't really add much to the movie, but it's a great vignette for Cooper.

So Affleck the director is a little generous to his fellow actors. MacRay calls for a sensitive tough guy, a role key but not necessarily all that challenging. He works with the rest of his cast to bring out the best in them, and though Renner might have the showiest role, Affleck brings out the best in everybody.

Hall and Lively get complexity in roles that are often thankless in movies like this. Both get pushed into corners by Jon Hamm as the FBI Agent tasked with bringing down the gang, and Hamm makes himself a good mirror for Affleck.

They both play men whose competence often gets underappreciated because of their charm, and it would have been easy for Hamm to let his antagonist have moments of going over the top. Instead, he projects icy cool for most of the movie, even when it's obvious that his character feels a little at sea.

Despite the charm of its character, The Town doesn't offer much in the way of lightness. Most of the movie is uncompromising in its vision of trouble people making more and more troubled decisions. If it loses a little of its conviction, it can be forgiven for being so effective until then.

It's good, but not memorable, but would probably look better if Affleck hadn't proven he could deliver a truly great film with his first try. The Town is a good place to visit, but it's not a neighborhood that will bring you back again and again.

Derek McCaw

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