I can’t help but wonder whether the staff of Boston’s film commission have been getting praise or pink slips over the past few years as the city’s risen to Hollywood prominence as the country’s contemporary capital of fictional crime. The Town arrives on the heels of Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River (2003), Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006) and Ben Affleck’s powerful directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone (2007). At the very least, the folks at the tourism bureau have to be ticked off. Faneuil Hall and the Freedom Trail are attractive getaway options, but you’ve got to figure families may start looking seriously at historic destinations where there’s less chance of getting caught in the crossfire of bad guys making getaways of their own.
This time around, Affleck cowrote the script (based on Chuck Hogan’s best-selling novel Prince of Thieves), directed and cast himself in the lead role. He plays Doug MacRay, the head of a four-man gang of locals specializing in bank heists and armored-car holdups. Doug is a native of Charlestown, a neighborhood that, the opening credits inform us, has produced more bank and armored-car robbers than any place in the whole, wide world. So I guess the Charlestown community has to be pretty tickled, too.
The picture kicks off with a pip of a bank job in Cambridge. The members of the crew wear scary skull masks to protect their identities and freak out the staff and customers. The tactic works too well. When the branch’s manager (Rebecca Hall) is ordered to open the vault, she’s too flustered to dial the combination correctly. The rest of the movie is set in motion in the seconds that follow. One of the robbers gently holds her shaking hand and says, “Take your time. Breathe.” That’s Affleck, natch. The next thing you know, another robber has decided to take Hall hostage as they make their escape, the sort of move that’s simply not this outfit’s style.
That’s Jeremy Renner as Jem. He’s Doug’s childhood bud and a borderline-psychotic loose cannon. Only he must be off his meds or something, because all his rule-breaking behavior seems to come as a surprise to Affleck’s character — one of the screenplay’s puzzling faux pas. No explanation is offered for Jem suddenly beginning to kidnap, wound and then kill people in the course of conducting business, or for Doug making almost zero effort to curtail these breaches of protocol.
The Town is a more conventional story than Gone Baby Gone. Affleck feels bad about Hall’s mistreatment, tracks her down and falls in love, neglecting to mention their previous meeting. The whole “one last job” thing has become something of a crime-film cliché, and that’s what Doug gets roped into here — even as he dreams of leaving his law-breaking ways behind and starting a new life far from Beantown with the unsuspecting beauty.
Complicating matters are Renner’s conviction that it’s smarter to eliminate witnesses than to date them, and a pursuing FBI agent, played by “Mad Men”’s Jon Hamm, who’s closing in on the crew. The outcome will certainly surprise no one. En route to it, however, are more than enough expertly staged heists, white-knuckle North End chases, snatches of crackling dialogue and convincing performances to make The Town a satisfying place to spend a couple of hours. It may not come close to the dark beauty of a film like Mystic River, but — you’ve got to give Affleck props — it’s a long, long way from Gigli.