When Ben Affleck made his directing debut with 2007's Gone Baby Gone, expectations were pretty low. Affleck's shared screenwriting Oscar with buddy Matt Damon for 1997's Good Will Hunting was a distant memory and probably viewed with some suspicion given the lack of a follow-up. Affleck had never been considered much of an actor (though I find him quite effective in Kevin Smith's underrated Chasing Amy) and was, at the time, on some kind of losing streak, leading a series of dire bombs — Daredevil, Gigli, Jersey Girl, Surviving Christmas. Even his attempt at "serious" acting, 2006's Hollywoodland, was at best a middling artistic success.
The move behind the camera felt like a desperate move to remake a flagging film career, and Affleck's decision to cast his younger brother, Casey, in the lead, was another eyebrow raiser: Casey Affleck had been well-regarded in a few small roles and/or small films, but he wasn't going to be cast as a lead in a studio thriller not directed by his more famous brother.
But it turned out — improbably to many, happily for Affleck — that Gone Baby Gone was pretty terrific. Set in rough-and-tumble Dorchester, Massachusetts and based on a quite good crime novel from Boston writer Dennis Lehane (Affleck co-wrote the adaptation), Gone Baby Gone combined sharp thriller mechanics, impressive top-to-bottom acting, a moody personality, and a palpable sense of place into one of that year's very best studio films. It made more high-toned, Oscar-certified Boston crime flicks like Martin Scorsese's The Departed and even Clint Eastwood's Mystic River (also based on Lehane) seem artificial by comparison.
The Town, a more action-focused crime scenario set in a different blue-collar Boston neighborhood, is Affleck's chance to prove that Gone Baby Gone was no fluke. And he succeeds handsomely.
With its aerial shots of the Boston street grid and escalating series of high-powered heist sequences, this story of a Charlestown bank-robbing crew being stalked by the FBI is a far splashier film. Its combination of intense, almost old-fashioned action sequences, cop-and-robber dynamics, and tortured, plot-driving romantic complications marks it as wanting to be nothing less than a Boston answer to Michael Mann's modern crime-film classic Heat. Affleck trades some of Gone Baby Gone's personality for a lot more gunplay in pursuit of this goal, and something is lost in the rain of bullets. But The Town is still certainly one of the best Hollywood films to show up in theaters this year.
Perhaps more comfortable in the director's seat — and needing a credible action-oriented lead — Affleck stars here as Doug McCray, a second-generation heist man and leader of a four-person crew that includes hot-tempered sidekick and childhood best friend Jimmy (Jeremy Renner, impressing again in his first significant role since The Hurt Locker). Affleck the director comes out better here than Affleck the leading man, but he is solid at the center of a terrific cast in which a bevy of secondary players shine: Renner crackles as the wildcard partner. Rebecca Hall — the glue girl of indie successes such as Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Please Give — is tender and sympathetic as the bank manager who falls into the crew's orbit. Gossip Girl's Blake Lively is sexy and sad as a tough townie chick just about to fade. Mad Men's Jon Hamm finds small, memorable moments as the G-man in pursuit. And Chris Cooper walks on for one crucial scene. Affleck even begins to build something of a company by bringing back Gone Baby Gone actors Titus Welliver and ostensible non-actor Slaine to nice effect.
If The Town sometimes seems oversaturated in gunfire, it shines in the non-shootout action scenes. Affleck smartly silences the score in a tense opening bank heist. And a mid-film car chase through the narrow streets of old Boston works better than these kinds of scenes typically do in modern action movies. As in Gone Baby Gone, Affleck's familiarity with and affection for his hometown is a major asset. Can Affleck find similar success in something other than a Boston-based crime story? I don't know. But based on Gone Baby Gone and The Town, I'd be happy to see him return to this territory again.
The Town Opening Friday, September 17th Multiple locations