Review: 'The Town'

(Three-and-a-half stars)

Ben Affleck is all grown up.

The Adonis actor whose career launched so promisingly with "Dazed and Confused" (1993) and "Chasing Amy" (1997) before nose-diving thanks to critically lambasted films like "Gigli" (2003) demonstrates his fortitude with this beautifully executed action/drama. Affleck takes the Clint Eastwood/Kevin Costner/Mel Gibson route by directing and starring in "The Town," a taut adaptation of the Chuck Hogan novel "Prince of Thieves."

Doug MacRay (Affleck) is the conflicted leader of a bank- and armored-car-robbing quartet based in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston, Mass. Doug's unfortunate family background (his mother left when he was a toddler and his dad, played by the always excellent Chris Cooper, is languishing in a federal prison) helped create the criminal he has become.

Things get complicated when the gang kidnaps bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall of "Vicky Cristina Barcelona") during a brazen robbery, blindfolding the terrified young woman and setting her free at the edge of a river. Doug's right-hand man/best friend Jem (Oscar nominee Jeremy Renner of "The Hurt Locker"), a trigger-happy bruiser, expresses concern when he learns that Claire lives in the same Charlestown neighborhood as Doug and his pals. Doug agrees to keep an eye on Claire, which quickly develops into a passionate relationship between the two. And Claire is oblivious to the sinister doings of her new beau.

Suddenly life isn't so bleak for Doug. He is anxious to run away with Claire, leaving his drug-addicted ex (Blake Lively of "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants"), relentless FBI agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm of TV's "Mad Men") and Charlestown itself behind him. But bigwig gangster Fergie Colm (Pete Postlethwaite) won't let Doug hit the road without pulling off one last job: a dangerous and profitable heist of Boston's Fenway Park.

"Town" comes across as a sort of cinematic love letter to the city of Boston, where Affleck spent his formative years (he grew up in nearby Cambridge, Mass.). The film is reminiscent of the 1995 Michael Mann drama "Heat," striking a similar tone. The production values from score to lighting to cinematography are excellent, demonstrating Affleck's somewhat surprisingly deft hand behind the camera.

Affleck has matured as an actor and serves up what is arguably his best performance to date. Affleck's Doug is a likable bad guy, similar to Robert De Niro's charming lawbreaker in "Heat." But Renner threatens to steal the show as the unpredictable Jem. His portrayal is raw and honest, and both Hall and Lively are in top form as the female leads. Hamm doesn't fare quite as well, which is more a result of his unpleasant character than any problems with his performance.

The script is hit-and-miss. Clever (and often funny) dialogue breaks up the web of foul language, but the quick-moving relationship between Doug and Claire is a bit unbelievable.

The film is rife with suspense and fast-paced action. Tension builds and builds, culminating in the edge-of-your-seat climax at Fenway. Although pacing lulls on occasion, the overall tension is so good that even a seemingly casual conversation among Doug, Jem and Claire gets the heart racing.

Affleck's admirable second directorial effort (following his 2007 success "Gone Baby Gone") is a "Town" well worth visiting.

Rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, some sexuality and drug use. 2 hours, 5 minutes.

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