Ben Affleck in The Town

To catch a thief: Affleck in a clever disguise
Warner Bros. Pictures

Directing himself as a verifiable big-movie lead after some time in supporting-actor Triple-A ball, director-star Ben Affleck models a full line of warm-up suits to play Doug MacRay, a second-generation blue-collar stickup man, brains of his four-man bank crew.

The setting is Charlestown, the majority-Irish Boston neighborhood that shares a peninsula with Cambridge, half-gentrified, still identified in the tagline as the "bank robbery capital of America." MacRay's crew is among the best—or the most theatrical, judging by their costume selection, coming out like some Ozzfest second-stage act in purple-dreadlocked skull masks or nuns' habits.

The Town is based on Chuck Hogan's 2004 novel, Prince of Thieves. In its first chapter, Hogan's book has MacRay "tearing off his jumpsuit as if he were trying to shed his own criminal skin." Already reconsidering the life he's living (he's joined AA, sipping soda while his boys get wrecked as always), MacRay finds more motive to change in his tentative relationship with Claire (Rebecca Hall), one of the Prius-driving yuppies who have started to rent up newly chic Charlestown. Unbeknownst to Claire, Doug's the same guy who recently stormed her bank and held her hostage; their affair begins as he starts to stalk her, and they meet-cute at a neighborhood laundromat. Being a character study of a gifted, low-bred ne'er-do-well with dark secrets, redeemed by a clean middle-class cutie, it's easy to see the appeal of Hogan's novel for Good Will Hunting's co-creator—who has since acquired a taste for big-fireball action, very freely indulged here.

Conspiring against Doug's regeneration are his on-the-block loyalties. There's Jem (Jeremy Renner), his lieutenant and best friend from second grade, increasingly a loose cannon on jobs, and Jem's sister, Krista (Blake Lively, slumming in hoop earrings), an Oxycontin-slinging slattern whom Doug still takes upstairs sometimes.

Meanwhile, the head of an FBI bank-job task force, one Agent Frawley (Jon Hamm), is demanding more than an apology for Doug's crimes, presiding over spiffy procedural scenes, trying to find a crack in the Irish omerta. Part of this is attempted through cocky-flirty interrogations of Doug's women, some of The Town's occasionally successful actor duets.

The interclass Doug-Claire-Krista triangle is the stuff of High Sierra or Some Came Running­—except that Lively substitutes runny eyeliner for yearning, while Affleck and Hall do not, as they say, set the screen on fire, having little time for play outside the personal confessions they're forever unloading on each other ("My brother died on a day like this . . ."). Broad, stolid Affleck is better with macho pathos, goaded by shanty-Irish tough Jem. And Pete Postlethwaite's performance is indelible in the small part of neighborhood boss Fergie Colm, who runs his operation from a florist's shop. Ratlike, bandy-armed, a complexion like the penny left in Coca-Cola overnight, he owns the screen for the time it takes him to brutally trim a rose.

The Town is a scrupulously location-scouted, aggressively Boston movie. Space between scenes is filled with what amounts to a helicopter tour down the River Charles—interruptions that add to the movie's queerly compartmentalized feel. It's difficult to connect the film's characters to the action figures of a major set piece inside Fenway, or the car chase ricocheting through the narrow red-brick streets of the North End. Picturesque qualities aside, Boston's recent popularity as a location has, I suspect, much to do with its status as refuge for a viable street-tough urban poor—who are white and more box-office bankable ("They think there's no more serious white people," says Lively, white as snow if not viably serious). Tallying the films shot in, say, black Roxbury won't take much time.

Clocking in at a heavy two hours, The Town does not end before Affleck wears a snicker-inspiring introspective beard. If for this alone, it misses on the big emotional gut-punch—but it's good enough at least that you wish it was better.

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