Ben Affleck likes to make movies about hardscrabble Bostonians. He co-wrote and co-starred with Matt Damon in “Good Will Hunting”; co-wrote and directed “Gone Baby Gone,” also set in Boston projects; and now has co-written, directed and stars in “The Town,” an entertaining, above-average heist movie in which he plays a professional bank robber from a Boston neighborhood called Charlestown, a tough place where, the introductory titles tell us, more bank robbers have been bred than in any other American city.
The result is something of a hybrid, sort of like if you took “Good Will Hunting” and fused it with a thriller. Alternately realistic and implausible — but always compelling — it's also an oddity in today's movie climate, where films tend to be much more compartmentalized. “The Town” has a more individual character; though it contains a fair share of Hollywood elements it often feels unpredictable, working in the conventions of its genre while, like its protagonist, bucking at its restraints.
Like most heist movies, the story begins and ends with one, and yet in this example the focus is as much on the complex web of relationships between Doug MacRay (Affleck) and his crew, complicated when they have to take a hostage, bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), during the robbery of her place of business. After letting her go, they're dismayed to learn she lives in the neighborhood. Doug promises to keep tabs on her, eventually developing a romantic interest fostered by his own barely concealed desire to make a new life for himself.
Based on the novel “Prince of Thieves” by Chuck Hogan, the movie makes an admirable attempt to stress characters and setting as it relays an unfolding cat-and-mouse game between Doug and an FBI agent (Jon Hamm) doggedly investigating the bank robbery. Dramatic material slowly sheds light on the backgrounds of Doug and his crew. They aren't just criminals, we learn, but guys brought up in crime, with damaged childhoods, regaling each other with stories of the unlawful acts of their friends and family. Gradually a picture emerges of how they got where they are, and where they're most likely doomed to end up.
For better and worse, “The Town” has many similarities to “Gone Baby Gone,” Affleck's underrated detective story from 2007, in which he cast his brother, Casey, as a tough private investigator on the hunt for a missing girl. Many of the same praises and criticisms leveled at that film apply this time. “The Town” certainly has well-constructed plot, with attention to detail and performances worthy of the work of many of Affleck's influences, especially Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese, just two the younger filmmaker obviously admires.
Affleck himself is sturdy in his characterization of Doug, and he doesn't shirk minor roles often neglected in such films. Jeremy Renner and Pete Postlethwaite, in particular, turn in riveting performances as pitiless fellow townies of different generations who hinder Doug's plans to escape his circumstances.
One of the more interesting aspects is guessing which way the movie will go with Doug's predicament, whether he'll escape or be pulled down by his surroundings. It's a big question upon which the movie keeps us hanging until the end while serving up a solid amount of action. The dictum handed down by the studio era and evolving into tradition is that he must fail, that criminals must not get away with their crimes and go on to live happy lives. And yet the character is played by the kind of attractive, likeable, Hollywood A-lister who certainly would be granted a happy ending in any other type of movie.
How “The Town” resolves this is clever but at the same time somewhat dubious and not completely satisfying. It's as if Affleck can't look up from the intricate paces long enough to find the bigger picture in it all. For a guy who used to be referred to as half of “Bennifer,” he's shown in two similar but distinct movies that he has a lot of promise as a filmmaker. There's just something missing in his application, a little more sensitivity, conviction or whatever it is that separates talent from genius. Until he finds it we'll just have to appreciate that he makes really entertaining movies that don't necessarily add up to something great. (R) 120 min.