The bank job that begins The Town is fleet and fierce and finished before the title credits roll. It's not only an efficient heist, it's an efficient piece of moviemaking. And Ben Affleck, who stars as Doug MacRay, the brains behind a gang of stickup artists, is the brain behind the cameras, too.
In his second directorial effort - like Gone Baby Gone, it's set in the tougher precincts of his hometown, Boston - Affleck works the familiar turf of a cops-and-robbers thriller but populates it with characters who come convincingly, and often creepily, to life.
In truth, this robbery isn't perfect. An alarm gets triggered, a hostage taken. She's Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), the bank's manager, and she's let go soon enough after the getaway: blindfolded, left on a sandy strip along the harbor, shaken but unharmed.
And that's how the romance at the center of The Town - a title that alludes to Charlestown, the Boston neighborhood that's home to Doug and his crew, and to generations of hardscrabble Irish American types - is born. It turns out that Claire lives in a gentrified corner of the same mile-square area, and Doug decides to check on her and make sure she doesn't know anything that could identify him and his cohorts to the law.
They meet cute in a laundromat. He, of course, already knows who she is. But she doesn't have a clue that a few days earlier he was wearing a mask, wielding a weapon, and ordering her to open her bank's safe.
The Town has been adapted from Chuck Hogan's smart page-turner Prince of Thieves, with a great deal of fidelity. (And a great team of filmmakers, including There Will Be Blood cinematographer Robert Elswit.)
There's one significant change that Affleck and his cowriters have opted for, however, that perhaps makes the movie less than it might have been. In Hogan's book, the FBI agent who goes after Doug - played with gruff cool and three days' worth of stubble by Mad Men's Jon Hamm - also goes after Claire. The men are at odds not just because one's a crook and the other a cop. They're vying for the same woman as well.
Perhaps this is too messy a business to cram into a couple of hours (or too implausible?), but it leaves Hamm with not much to do besides bark commands, furrow his brow, and smooth-talk Blake Lively - who plays Doug's trampy townie ex.
She's also Jem's sister - Jem being Doug's childhood friend and hotheaded partner in crime. The casting couldn't be better: Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker), scary and menacing as Jem; Hall, fragile and a bit unfathomable as Claire, and Affleck himself, working his jaw around a gritty accent, playing a guy struggling mightily to cut his roots and quit the armed-robbery business altogether. And maybe quit it with Claire.
In small but memorable turns: Chris Cooper as Doug's dad, doing time in jail, and Pete Postlethwaite as the local crime boss - a wiry, unpleasant gent whose front is a tiny Charlestown flower shop.
The Town boasts terrifically orchestrated action sequences, culminating in an armored-car hijacking at Fenway Park, where a weekend Red Sox stand has left the stadium's coffers overflowing. And there's a car chase through a maze of narrow Boston streets. But Affleck is more interested in the people in the midst of the action than he is in the action itself, and that gives this accomplished genre piece considerable and compelling depth.