Thursday, September 16, 2010

Ben Affleck goes to 'Town'

Ben Affleck and Jeremy Renner as partners in crime.

Boston has been very, very good to Ben Affleck. The actor and sometime director jump-started his career with Good Will Hunting (1997), a Boston-based movie he co-wrote with Matt Damon. In 2007, Affleck directed Gone Baby Gone, a crime yarn set in the Boston area. With the volatile new thriller, The Town, Affleck returns to the Boston scene for more tough-talking crime.

Adapted from a novel by Chuck Hogan, The Town bristles with pungent dialog, hard-boiled acting and vivid characters from Boston's criminal class. The movie takes place mostly in the Boston neighborhood known as Charlestown. There - or so we're told at the movie's outset - bank robbery practically constitutes a family business.

Affleck portrays Doug McCray, a bank robber mired in a standard problem: McCray's had his fill of the criminal life, and wants to go straight. Too bad the neighborhood - embodied in a dangerous, loose cannon of a criminal played by Jeremy Renner - keeps pulling him back for one job after another.

Like many before him, McCray pins his hopes for redemption on a woman (Rebecca Hall). Hall's Claire Keesey works as an assistant manager at a bank McCray and his boys rob in the movie's gripping opening scene. They also kidnap Claire briefly. The robbers wear skeleton masks that make them look especially menacing, and that keep Claire from identifying her tormentors.

Worried that Claire may have picked up a clue or two, McCray establishes a relationship with her. He wants to make sure that she can't incriminate him or any of his felonious cohorts. Not surprisingly, McCray begins to fall for Claire, allowing himself -- maybe for the first time -- to imagine life away from the mean streets of Charlestown.

But escape from the past never proves easy, and the script - credited to Peter Craig, Affleck and Aaron Stockard - places plenty of obstacles in McCray's path: neighborhood loyalties; a reflexive hatred of cops and a bit of old-fashioned intimidation to mention only a few.

The Town boasts the kind of gritty authenticity that we've come to expect from good crime movies, all of it bolstered by fine work from Affleck's supporting cast.

Last seen defusing bombs in The Hurt Locker, Renner can scare the daylights out of you even when he's smiling. Jon Hamm (of TV's Mad Men) stretches a bit as an FBI agent, and Pete Postlethwaite has a nice turn as a florist who runs a small crime empire. Don't overlook Chris Cooper, who shows how much an actor can accomplish in very little time. He appears in one scene as McCray's imprisoned father.

No Boston-bred movie can (or should) escape Fenway Park - home to the city's beloved Red Sox -- and The Town is no exception. I won't say more except to note that the use of heavy artillery during the movie's finale tends to blow away what's best about The Town: the way it captures the tone and texture of life among the criminally inclined. There's enough firepower in the movie's final scenes to make you wonder whether you're in Boston or Baghdad.

By that time, though, you will have gotten what there is to get from The Town. The movie's real pleasure derives from thrust-and-parry dialog and from characters accustomed to living on a dangerous edges.

Affleck's performance also helps. He makes McCray intense, serious and street-wise. At its best, his movie follows suit.

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