One of the best films of 2007 was Gone Baby Gone, a mystery/drama set in a Boston neighborhood that focused on a detective couple tasked with finding the truth behind a little girl’s disappearance. It’s a fantastic movie in almost every way from the story to the acting, from the direction to the way it challenges the viewer to think about the costs of our convictions. Occasionally lost amongst the praise is the fact that the film is the directorial debut of Ben Affleck. Fans cheered his new found success behind the camera, detractors begrudgingly credited everyone but Affleck, and the majority of the movie-going public ignored it all together. (Seriously, if you haven’t seen it yet go rent it now.)

Three years later Affleck has returned to the director’s chair with The Town. He’s also returned to the crime-ridden streets of Boston in this tale of a group of friends who moonlight as bank robbers. It’s not the weighty and complex success Gone Baby Gone was, in fact it’s fairly generic and basic in its structure, but Affleck and friends still manage to deliver one of the most exciting and satisfying thrillers to hit screens this year.

Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) tried to get out of Charlestown, and for the briefest of moments he succeeded, but the townie in him was just too much to ignore. He’s back home where his days are spent working, hanging out with his friends, and maybe robbing the occasional bank and armored truck… Doug’s three partners in crime include Gloansy (Slain) the getaway driver and car thief extraordinaire and Desmond (Owen Burke) the one with electrical skills to bypass alarms whenever possible. Chief among them though is James (Jeremy Renner). He’s the volatile one, recently released from prison after serving time for murder, and the quickest to move to action when things start to go cock-eyed. Doug and James have the kind of friendship where one can tell other that he needs his help, no questions asked, but that he’s going to hurt someone. And the only reply is “Whose car we gonna take?”

Not surprisingly, things go to hell pretty quickly. The opening robbery finds James taking a female bank employee named Claire (Rebecca Hall) hostage until they’ve made their escape. The group discovers that she lives in their neighborhood and decide to check up on her to make sure she feels intimidated enough not to volunteer information to the police. Doug takes the responsibility, initially to prevent James from hurting her, but soon finds himself falling in love. And with that love comes the possibility of escaping Charlestown once and for all.

The rest of the story comes together almost exactly as the genre dictates… Doug wants out but circumstances (and a local crime boss played by Pete Postlethwaite) pull him back in for one last job. His love for a woman who doesn’t know his secrets balances precariously on a foundation of lies and deceit. A determined FBI agent (Jon Hamm) sets his sights on Doug and the crew threatening to bring them down by any means necessary.

It shouldn’t work. We’ve seen it all before. But it does. Like goddamn gangbusters.

The movie is undeniably laid across a very well-worn structure, but it weaves electrifying action scenes, moments of pure tension and suspense, and sharply felt character work across that basic setup in such a way as to keep the viewer engaged and entertained throughout.

Affleck proves himself capable of shooting action almost with the best of them. A post-robbery car chase runs reckless through the town’s thin streets and thinner alleyways, and the action is fast, visceral, and filled with visual and aural impacts as the cars smash, crunch, and screech their way through the streets. It’s more exciting than any big screen chase since Ronin, and it ends with a well deserved laugh involving perhaps the smartest cop in Boston. Gunfire sound effects are an often overlooked aspect in action films, but here they’re sharp and brutal in their clarity and report. As with the film’s big gunfight near Fenway Park the viewer is made to feel part of the action. A couple scenes feel borrowed from the Heat playbook, one action and one dramatic, but the film makes them both its own.

Affleck the director made the risky but ultimately wise choice of casting Affleck the actor in the lead role, and it pays off handsomely. Doug is the heart of the film, and Affleck does a fine job as the antihero of sorts who’s recognized for his sins but that still deserves another chance. “People get up everyday and tell themselves they’re gonna change their lives,” he tells Claire. “They never do. I’m gonna change mine.” We want him to succeed. But we know the odds are against him.

The rest of the cast (aside from one) is equally effective. Renner is a brilliant powder keg fueled by adrenaline, danger, and honor. Hall is by turns fragile and delightful as the woman who triggers much of the drama. Hamm, Postlethwaite, and Chris Cooper (as Doug’s incarcerated father) all shine in their roles and add depth to what could have been simple cardboard characters.

For all its successes big and small the film suffers a few minor failures. The high quality of actors across the board actually makes poor Blake Lively stand out for all the wrong reasons. The bar is set too high for her to reach, and while she’s far from a bad actress she appears to be straining hard to keep up with the others in both accent and execution. The film also suffers a pacing and narrative slowdown after the familiar pieces have fallen into place and the viewer feels comfortable predicting the eventual outcome. (A prediction that will be partly wrong by the way.) It’s quickly forgiven as the viewer is drawn back in with some stellar action set-pieces, but it’s a noticeable lag.

The Town doesn’t carry the same emotional weight as Affleck’s directorial debut, but it doesn’t need to. It succeeds as a solid and exciting piece of entertainment all the same. The absence of mystery and moral quandary leaves room to focus on strong character work, thrilling action sequences, and several scenes of true tension. It may be a simple nuts and bolts thriller, but if this became the new standard for “serviceable” it would be the best thing to happen to movies since Netflix.

The Upside: Plot may seem generic but execution is fantastic and electric; car chase is one of the best to hit screens in the last year; strong acting from all (but Blake Lively) including great turns by Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Hall, and Ben Affleck; final gunfight is on par with bank robbery from Heat (yeah, I said it); a highly satisfying film

The Downside: Slight drag in the middle, Blake Lively feels outclassed, Doug is ridiculously obvious in his intentions on their first date with Claire

On the Side: Rebecca Hall reminds me in many ways of my friend Heather who I should probably call soon


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