Dir. Ben Affleck
(2010, R, 123 min)
★ ★

The Town is a watchable and competently made heist film without much to recommend it for. It’s the second film directed by actor Ben Affleck, whose first film was 2007’s darker and grittier Gone Baby Gone. This film, also set in a noir-ish Boston crime world, is constructed mostly of car chases, shootouts, and cliches — occasionally effective, but on the whole not very satisfying. I kept hoping it would develop into something of greater ambition or higher artistic stakes.

It begins with a contrivance it never quite overcomes. Affleck himself stars as Doug MacRay, the leader of a small gang of thieves from Charlestown, a neighborhood that, we’re told, produces more bank robbers per capita than anywhere else in the world. During their latest heist, disguised in skeleton masks, they take hostage Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), a comely assistant bank manager whom they release after successfully evading police. Can she identify them? Will she talk to the feds? To find out, Doug follows her, arranges to meet her, and — wouldn’t you know — falls for her.

Their relationship introduces the film’s primary conflict: Will Doug choose his friends or the woman he loves? The problem with this dilemma is that the romance forces too much sentimentality on Doug, who we’re also asked to believe is a hardened criminal. This makes him into a kind of noble crook paradox — he does wrong even though he wants to do right — but Affleck, with this uneasy good-guy/bad-guy duality, is trying to have his cake and eat it too.

Doug’s best friend is James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner). We’ve seen his type before. He’s a sociopath, thereby making Doug look more heroic by comparison, but Doug loves him like a brother and owes him a debt he can’t easily repay. Doug tries to get out, but James keeps pulling him back in. And so on, and so on. This storyline pretty much tells itself.

Another familiar type: the dogged investigator who will stop at nothing, played effectively by Mad Men’s Jon Hamm but pushed a little too close to villainy by the screenplay and direction. I enjoyed his hard-edged cynicism and found him formidable and compelling, but at a certain point the film stops viewing him as a crime-fighter and starts viewing him as a heartless interloper in the love story. He’s the antagonist of the piece, but the film confuses him for the bad guy.

I would have liked more interesting dialogue scenes — like the strong interrogation between Affleck and Hamm — and fewer action sequences; when you cast actors of this caliber, you should use them. The heists, chases, and escapes are increasingly implausible, but the climactic scenes at Fenway Park take the cake, unfolding like Grand Theft Auto through the streets of Boston and teaching us one important lesson about New England crime: it’s alarmingly easy to procure police, paramedic, and bus driver uniforms in Beantown.

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