Four out of Five Stars
Rated R/125 min.
A career criminal (Ben Affleck) and his trigger-happy partner (Jeremy Renner) commit an elaborate bank robbery that puts them on every most-wanted list and leaves an eyewitness and hostage (Rebecca Hall) who may hold the key to bringing them to justice. This is merely the set-up of Affleck’s second directorial effort, following the terrific Gone, Baby Gone. I walked in expecting a decent movie but was blind-sided by a potential Best Picture contender. Affleck has set out to make the Boston equivalent of Michael Mann’s Heat and he almost gets there. That’s high praise.
Affleck took a calculated risk by casting his brother Casey as the lead in his previous film and it paid off. Here the former mega-celeb—who has been under the radar for a while after some disastrous movies and a stint in the tabloids—casts himself as the star (he also co-wrote the screenplay) and it’s hard to remember the last time he gave a performance this layered. The big news, however, is Renner, the Oscar-nominated star of The Hurt Locker, who displays a ferociousness and suave charisma that reminded me of a young Sean Penn.
Even when the roles are under-developed, the cast of this sprawling pulp drama keeps the characters vivid. Blake Lively brings a tragic dimension to her change-of-pace turn as a neighborhood floozy. Jon Hamm is well-cast in a part that showcases his heroic features (the guy just looks like a superhero), while Hall makes a potentially thankless role a heartbreaker and underrated character actor Pete Postlethwaite epitomizes evil walking in broad daylight.
The story is sometimes contrived, with a too-tidy resolution cribbed from countless cop TV shows. Still, few cop dramas, on film or television, grab you from the first scene the way this one does and build to a climax that manages to be tragic, crowd-pleasing and teasingly unpredictable. The heist scenes are well-staged but the big shoot-out at the end is, frankly, incredible; Affleck’s ability to stage something this large and ambitious left me dumbstruck.
It isn’t fair to compare this to Gone, Baby Gone because they’re such different films, with only the affection for Boston providing a connecting thread. Whereas Gone was somber and moving, The Town (an improvement over Prince of Thieves, the title of the novel it’s based on) crackles with suspense, surprising doses of humor and enthralling drama. This is one of those hugely entertaining, well-crafted studio movies with an intoxicating story, like The Shawshank Redemption, that will likely become a favorite of many.
Two movies into his directorial career and Affleck has become a filmmaker worth keeping an eye on.