The decent-hearted criminal trying to go straight. The beautiful woman who doesn't know whether to love him or turn him in to the authorities. The live-wire partner whose erratic behavior threatens to get them all locked away for life. The dogged FBI agent who won't rest until justice is served.
I know what you're thinking: Isn't that the plot of every third episode of Cold Case?
But in the confident, assured hands of director Ben Affleck -- taking a leap beyond his ambitious but muddled debut, Gone Baby Gone -- these familiar ingredients are transformed into something new. The Town is a tough, muscular crime drama with a biting wit. It's like a cup of scalding, acid black coffee after a long slumber.
In this case, the slumber of which I speak is the just-passed summer movie season, which failed to give us even one mainstream popcorn movie that wasn't intended for 11-year-old video game freaks. (And, yes, I saw Inception; and, actually, "smart" is probably the last adjective I'd apply to that overwrought hooey.) Affleck announces his intentions in the opening scenes, with a nervously edited, ruthlessly efficient bank robbery, featuring four men in spooky Skeletor masks.
They force their way inside and then force the assistant manager (Rebecca Hall, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) to open the safe. When the cops show up, the robbers -- led by longtime Boston-born friends Doug MacRay (Affleck) and Jem Coughlin (Jeremy Renner) -- take the bank manager hostage.
But even after they release her, their paranoia becomes hard to shake: Might she be able to identify one of them to the Feds. Doug starts trailing her, strikes up a conversation at a coin laundry and -- before even realizing the dangers involved -- falls in love.
As wildly melodramatic as it might sound, The Town -- based on the novel Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan and ably adapted by Peter Craig, Aaron Stockard and Affleck -- feels entirely plausible and naturalistic. That's partly because Affleck and cinematographer Robert Elswit ( There Will Be Blood) invest so much in bringing alive the Boston setting.
"The town" refers to the Charlestown neighborhood, a dingy section of south Boston, lorded over by a crime boss who doubles as a florist (Pete Postlethwaite, who could do these roles in his sleep but still does them better than anyone). Affleck has a terrific eye for the way yuppified condos bump up against crumbling old houses, but more than that, he has a great feel for the sometimes perverse loyalties that develop in any tight-knit, family-centered community.
The bulk of The Town concerns Doug's desperate efforts to break free from Charlestown, even as his circumstances become hopelessly complicated: Jem continues to insist they take on new assignments; a wily FBI agent (an effective Jon Hamm) tries to bring them down; and Doug's longtime girlfriend, Jem's sister, Krista (Blake Lively), refuses to let him break up with her.
Echoing those other recent Boston-based crime epics, Mystic River and The Departed, The Town feels a tad overplotted, and it strains for an operatic anguish it doesn't always earn. The weakest link, in fact, is Affleck's own performance, which never fully captures Doug's fundamental decency, or, for that matter, his strain of sociopathy. (Oddly enough, the Boston-raised Affleck's accent is also the least convincing in the movie.)
But that's a forgivable flaw in a movie that otherwise strikes a deft balance between the cynical and the humane. Much like The Departed, The Town looks upon this dog-eat-dog world of petty criminality with a jaundiced, comic eye. But Affleck never lets the characters devolve into cartoons the way Martin Scorsese did, coaxing tense, nuanced performances from Renner, Hall, Lively and Chris Cooper, who turns up briefly as Doug's incarcerated dad.
He also turns out to be a shockingly good director of action. In addition to that superb opening bank robbery, The Town serves up two successively more elaborate heists. The climax, especially, is a beauty, a hailstorm of gunfire and smoke and crunching metal, set at Fenway Park. The result is a purely pleasurable, old-school entertainment that never once insults your intelligence.
Who'da thunk? Ben Affleck has been reborn as one of the most promising young film directors working today.