Ah Ben Affleck, we’ve missed you.

There was never really a time where Affleck was one of the guys who “could do no wrong”. He enjoyed a bit of sway after Good Will Hunting and he’s very enjoyable in his earlier work but he’s never had the kind of ironclad trajectory that contemporaries like Matt Damon have had. Even though he made some piss-poor choices and ended up in some bad movies (Paycheck, Gigli, Jersey Girl, etc) he was never bad per se. When he was doing J-Lo and then Jennifer Garner right after, he was a tabloid target and seemed sunk for sure. I still liked the guy, personally, and considered him a draw not a deterrent. But I think I wasn’t exactly in the majority. When agreeing to billing in a movie where you die in the first five minutes and have your face used as a puppet by a pre-Star Trek Chris Pine is said to generate “some much-needed good will”, you know your career is probably in trouble.

Then along came the phenomenal Gone Baby Gone and all of the sudden Affleck had reinvented himself as a talented director. And seriously, that is a monumentally great film and probably one of the all-time great modern directorial debuts. If you haven’t seen it, stop reading this and GO FORTH. It is critically acclaimed and an audience darling, one of those increasingly rare films that have you arguing with your friends about “what you would do” afterward. Seeing it with my friend James Post is still one of my favorite theater experiences since I practically dragged him to it and he came out as thrilled and ready to discuss it as I was.

But anyway, this isn’t a review of Gone Baby Gone. It is, among other things apparently, a review of The Town.

What should be understood at the outset is that Affleck has not repeated himself. There was a lot of talk about his sticking with Boston as a setting and how the trailer and general feel of the film seemed in line with Gone Baby Gone and maybe not as a good thing. If you’re worried about that in the first place, you might be dumb but for the sake of argument I can tell you that it isn’t the case. The Town is a very different experience of Boston cops and criminals than was delivered in Affleck’s last effort much less the other recent big event Boston crime movie The Departed.

The Town has more in common with Michael Mann films (Heat, Thief, Collateral, etc) in the same genre than with anything else. It is fairly broad, with a small cast of characters whose lives and history are more implied than explored. This is a deft way to navigate the cliches that are rife in the material, the kind of stuff we’re so used to seeing in these kinds of movies that to use them even as a shorthand is to risk turning the audience off.

The action centers around Affleck playing Doug MacRay, a former NHL draft pick from a family of thieves who has had a long-gestating desire to get out of “the life” and leave Boston in his wake. Ah, that oft-employed criminal cliche. But here, Affleck shows his deftness and doesn’t dwell on MacRay’s motives or past, rather delivering info incidentally and taking that Doug wants out as a given. He’s just not quite violent enough or greedy enough for the life, and he really doesn’t like being co-opted by outside interests. Surrounding MacRay are various personalities who all seem to want something from him, and this is the implied reason he really wants out. Again, this is never explicit and is left for the audience to pick up from how people treat the guy, and in turn how he treats them.

Foremost among these is Jeremy Renner’s ferocious Jem Coughlin, a violent pit bull whose energy seems to stem from an erratic desire to make up for time lost in prison. Most people will think that Jem will “go Pesci” at some point in the film and while Pesci is sort of the model for characters like this, the interesting thing about Jem is that the chaos comes out frequently but is treated as just one more thing MacRay has to tolerate. Jem is no Waingro to be viciously set straight by MacRay, it’s just something to be factored into what they do and exploited where necessary (especially in one memorable scene where the two of them lay a beating on some thugs). Renner is unsurprisingly great and its roles like this that will allow him to capitalize on the notice he gained in The Hurt Locker. I’ve liked the guy in everything he’s done, though.

Jem’s sister (who inevitably dimes the crew out, a non-twist that even the film knows is telegraphed probably before it even begins to take shape) needs MacRay to escape from her own sad, fucked out life. She’s a “hot chick” drug addict, similar to Amy Ryan’s character in Gone Baby Gone except not as old and definitely with more goods to leverage. Krista is fiercely sexual and MacRay only begins to really fend her off with any heart when he finds someone he can really be with. Until that point it seems like the fucked up relationship he has with her is as daily a part of his life as the one he has with Jem.

The rest of the crew is barely there, which I think might be a flaw. It would have been nice to see the two other guys get more characterization. We don’t know anything about them, except a bit of work history and rap sheets discussed by the cops later on. I was happy to see that Slaine played one of them after I so enjoyed his Bubba Rugowski in Gone Baby Gone. Maybe Affleck will eventually have his own stable of supporting actors like so many other directors. If so, I hope Slaine sticks around. He has a sort of authentically sleazy charm that makes it easy to believe he’s the criminals he’s been playing for Affleck.

Anyway, the last thing MacRay needs to escape is the legacy of his imprisoned father (Chris Cooper) who was once a celebrated mastermind of the kinds of heists Doug himself has inherited. Like father, like son… and the aged “Florist” (Pete Postlethwaite) a local gangster who sets up jobs expects Doug to carry on the family business. It is in how the Florist presses him that we see the angry, violent side of MacRay and it is obvious that this is something he’d like to bury as much as any influence these types of people have on him.

In Rebecca Hall’s Claire Keesey, Doug might finally find the inspiration and support he needs to take that last step away. The situation is complicated, of course, by the fact that it is only because she was taken hostage during one of their jobs that he even knows she exists. Following her to make sure she doesn’t have anything on his crew, and to protect her from unpredictable Jem who took her in the first place, he makes contact and winds up fatally attracted to her. As the capable feds (a confident, dogged John Hamm and an unfortunately barely-there Titus Welliver) edge closer to the crew, getting into their lives, the budding romance on which MacRay is hinging everything from his friendships to his freedom is tested to the breaking point.

If you don’t buy Doug and Claire, the movie is kind of sunk. To hinge so much of even a simple (and not in a bad way) cops and robbers movie on an unlikely love affair is probably a bold move, but potentially misguided. That said, I think it works.

A lot of people will say this is Renner’s movie but Affleck is totally confident and in control of his performance, delivering what is probably a career best role if not because it’s his first starring role in a while then because he shows a willingness to give other actors the breathing room to establish a lot and sometimes with very little.

With Rebecca Hall so vanished into Claire Keesey, we have a triumvirate of strong performances that anchor a film that could very easily have been lost in cliche. With a sure hand, Affleck confidently secures himself as a director to watch, showing that his first film was no fluke and without trying to make lightning strike twice. The Town is a lesser film if only because it is less urgent, less unique, and less intimate than Gone Baby Gone. Not because it doesn’t have the quality or confidence to be what it is, which is a first-class crime movie from a guy we didn’t know had one in him let alone two.

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