Ben Affleck’s acting chops have come in for a fair amount of ridicule over the years, a tough break for someone who’s always been open to offbeat ventures (Chasing Amy, Dogma) and risky turns (an unexpected but scene-stealing cameo in Shakespeare in Love). As far as his directorial career’s concerned though, he is – in the lingo of a sport he follows religiously – batting two for two. Critics raved over his debut, 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, a gritty thriller set in his hometown of Boston. The Town, adapted from Chuck Hogan’s novel Prince of Thieves, doesn’t quite achieve the trash-talking heights of his debut, but is still a good showcase for Affleck’s fascination with working-class lives in Boston, as well as his growing confidence as a director (he directs himself for the first time).
As the veteran leader of a gang that robs banks in nun’s robes, you’d expect Doug McRay (Affleck) to be a bit more selective in his romantic pursuits than to fall for a former hostage (Rebecca Hall). Still, great action movies have subsisted on plots a lot flimsier than this, and we’re soon introduced to the competing interests of a sadistic mob boss (Pete Postlethwaite), an FBI agent (Mad Men's Jon Hamm) and Doug’s ex-lover (Blake Lively). Add to that a loose cannon of a partner (Jeremy Renner) who’s sulking because of Doug’s decision to go straight after one last job, and you have a situation set to boil over. And it does, in an extended heist sequence at a baseball park reminiscent of Michael Mann’s Heat.
Affleck and Hall’s improbable romance never really takes off, and the film is hijacked by several impressive supporting turns. Rheumy-eyed Jeremy Renner is one Red Bull short of insane (his performance received an Oscar nod for Supporting Actor). Blake Lively, star of TV’s Gossip Girl, is excellent as an old flame desperate for Doug’s attention; the bar scene between her and Hamm is one of the best in the movie. The Town isn’t flawless – the plotting is frequently weak and milder souls may tire of all that cussing. It is, however, an above-average cops and robbers flick by a director to watch out for. The DVD comes with two very brief extras – a look at some of the real-life characters the movie took inspiration from, and a featurette on Affleck as director.
A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi.