Now available on DVD, “The Town,” starring Ben Affleck, is one more in a long string of heist flicks, the first of which may have been “The Great Train Robbery.” As it has evolved, however, the formula for these robbery films has gotten more complex, with characters’ backgrounds and motives explored at length, the lawmen shown as not entirely effective or admirable, and a romantic subplot often layered in. Affleck , who co-wrote and directed the movie, supplies all of the above in a fast-paced, engaging example of the updated genre.
Returning to the location where he and Matt Damon first hit it big with the Oscar-winning screenplay for “Good Will Hunting,” Affleck employs Boston for the setting. Specifically, it’s Charlestown, the city’s seedier section that lacks the tourist attractions, a “town” that infamously spawns bank robbers. And that’s what Affleck’s character, Doug MacRay, does, along with three other guys. He’s backed by his longtime friend and housemate, Jem (the excellent Jeremy Renner), a two-time loser whose simmering rage continually boils over.
Jem’s sister, Krista (Blake Lively), a single mother and drug mule, hangs around the gang’s periphery, still hoping that ex-boyfriend Doug will give her another tumble. But Doug’s eyes have definitely turned away from “Townie” Krista and towards Claire (Rebecca Hall), the assistant manager of a bank that Doug and friends have recently robbed.
That last heist, and Claire’s apparent involvement in it, have earned the attention of the FBI agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm, of TV’s “Mad Men”). When both Frawley and Jem discover that Doug is spending his off time from his sand and gravel company job with Claire, the plot achieves its full complexity. Director Affleck winds the separate threads together tightly, bringing them all together in a shootout at Fenway Park.
None of this is especially original, but it still appeals. Affleck, cinematographer Robert Elswit and film editor Dylan Tichenor keep the proceedings visually lively. Several all-but-obligatory car chases through the narrow, winding streets of Boston pump up the adrenaline, alternating effectively with the individual dramatic conflicts. Mix in an original musical score by David Buckley and Harry Gregson-Williams, and the combination makes a movie which has done good box-office business already and figures to have some staying power.
And that is a tribute to Affleck, who follows up his directorial debut, “Gone Baby Gone,” with another strong effort. He’s smart enough to give his supporting cast lots of screen time, rather than making this a one-man show. Two cameos by screen veterans Pete Postlethwaite and Chris Cooper, playing old antagonists, stand out. Among the younger actors, I particularly liked Renner and Lively, as a brother and sister who have no scenes together but who, as a pair, represent the pull on Doug of his Charlestown roots, which he spends some time trying to escape. The film’s resolution leaves that question slightly open, as well as not quite satisfying the standard “moral” demands.
“The Town” is correctly rated “R” for language, drug use, and some sexuality, all of which are realistic given the characters and the setting. It’s not your typical Christmas movie, but it passes as escapist fare for a cold Yuletide night.