By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
The reclamation project that Ben Affleck calls a career continues with The Town, his second directing effort that would impress more if the first try weren't so terrific and visually similar.
The Town prowls the same Beantown mean streets as 2007's Gone Baby Gone, a marginally superior crime yarn on all counts, especially regarding the plot. There is no mystery here, or lurid details of drugs, abduction and corruption. The Town is essentially a romantic contrivance — boy meets girl, kidnaps and releases her, then lies about it — wrapped around white-knuckle action sequences suggesting the movie Affleck really wants to do.
It may not be the best idea yet for Affleck to act in his own movies, as he didn't in Gone Baby Gone. As career criminal Doug MacRay, Affleck underperforms like an artist with too much on his plate. It isn't a bad portrayal, just one that seems distracted by other responsibilities. To his credit, Affleck makes good on those duties, inspiring a solid cast to effective performances, and staging strong arm heists with flair.
Doug is a common creature in the gritty Boston borough Charlestown, a bank robber by nature and nurture. Crime is a legacy passed from father to son with no way out except through prison gates or the wrong end of a gun. Naturally, Doug wants out peacefully, after the final job so many movie crooks, assassins and spies are obligated to take.
His reason for going straight is found in the savvy assault on an armored car and bank in the opening sequence. Affleck is a stickler for nifty criminal details, from Doug casing the guards' habits to the benefits of bleach in erasing DNA evidence. What Doug doesn't count on is meeting Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), the bank manager whose nervousness stirs something in Doug under his Skelator mask.
Doug's lifelong friend and accomplice James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner) is the loose cannon every gangland drama needs, who impulsively takes Claire hostage then releases her. Later, James worries that Claire can identify them and wants her killed. Doug says he'll handle it but doesn't, falling in love with the witness who doesn't know he's a crook.
Meanwhile, FBI agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm) pieces together clues and coincidences leading to Doug's gang. Suspicions are raised when Adam realizes Claire and Doug are a twosome, leading to smoothly delivered revelations, confessions and double crosses. The Town loses momentum when it's just Doug and Claire on the screen, proving the romantic angle unsubstantial.
Affleck's film works much better with the woman out of the picture, when Affleck and Hamm breathe new life into interrogation room tough talk, and Chris Cooper nearly steals the show in only five gripping minutes as Doug's jailbird father. The climactic heist — at Fenway Park after a Red Sox game, no less — is an improbable scheme turned James Cagney tribute with Renner's white heat defiance.
Yet the feeling that Affleck retreated to safe turf with The Town after his marvelous debut can't be dismissed. Flip the release dates and Gone Baby Gone would be a major step forward despite their common ground. But Affleck has shown a remarkable tendency to work better when he has something to prove. His next movie could be a doozy.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at tampabay.com/blogs/movies.