By Jessica Baxter | September 17, 2010

Do you like apples?

Way back in 1997, Ben Affleck wasn’t what you’d call a gifted actor. But he did write a script with fellow Bostonian, Matt Damon. When that script got the coveted Green Light, and it came time to decide who would play the lead, I imagine Ben conceded, knowing his friend was the better actor. Will Hunting was a meaty role and it led to a lot more meat for Damon. Meanwhile, Affleck was stuck playing one-note guys for years to come. Some part of him must have longed for his chance to play a working-class Boston savant. As both director and star of “The Town”, Affleck finally gives himself that chance. And he doesn’t even screw it up. Like, at all.

Naturally, “The Town” in question is a borough of Boston. According to the opening titles, Charlestown is known for producing more bank robbers than any other city in the world. The film doesn’t exactly explain why that is, but it does show Charlestown as a very tight nit crime community, with transgressive skill passed down through the generations like a family business. Instead of being a math genius, Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) is a bank-robbing savant. He and his merry band of thieves are organized and efficient, turning bank robbing into an art form. They wear disguises and sometimes even play characters. They get in, get the money and get out, leaving no trace of DNA behind. Ordinarily, they take no prisoners. That’s why it’s a surprise to the rest when Jem (Jeremy Renner), the ticking time bomb of the group, decides to take a hostage to aid their getaway. Things get even more complicated when they learn that the hostage, a pretty girl named Claire, lives in Charlestown and could possibly identify them.

Wary of Jem’s violent tendencies, MacRay offers to check in on Claire and find out if she knows anything. Of course, since she’s a pretty girl with a philanthropy streak, and he’s a gold-hearted gangster, he soon falls for her. Even though she doesn’t really remember anything, their budding relationship puts his whole team in jeopardy as the F.B.I. closes in on them. Even though they specialize in leaving no trace, they’re basically the only four guys in town who could have done it. Furthermore, the main G-Man assigned to their case (Jon Hamm) is hard-a*s with something to prove. And he won’t stop until all of the suspects are either behind bars or dead.

Unlike Will Hunting, MacRay wants nothing more than to just leave Charlestown, preferably with his new girlfriend. But nobody will let him. Not Jem, his oldest friend who chose to do time rather than rat MacRay out; Not coked-up Krista, Jem’s sister and MacRay’s ex, who uses her baby as a way to garner sympathy; Certainly not the Irish florist/crime boss (Pete Postlethwaite) who insists that the gang to pull off one last, seemingly impossible job even while the heat builds under them.

There’s a lot of conflict in “The Town”. It unfolds slowly and builds on itself, leaving the viewer with a keen understanding of MacRay’s inner turmoil. The film doesn’t explicitly state why he saw gangster as a viable alternative to his foiled professional hockey career. But it offers plausible cause as to why he’s remained a gangster even though he’s an otherwise nice guy. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t be surprised to find this sort of layered characterization in serious noir drama. But this is Ben Affleck we’re talking about: Ben “Pearl Harbor Sucks and I Miss You” Affleck. I really have to hand it to him. He’s studied and learned a few things over the years. He’s not at all painful to watch anymore.

And apparently, he also knows how to direct. From a directorial standpoint, “The Town” isn’t necessarily a revelation, but it’s competent. The overall story is pretty cliché. But the action scenes are exciting, the interrogation scenes are tense, the getting-to-know-you scenes with Claire are full of heart and most of the dialogue is delightfully hard-boiled. Every scene hits its intended note. It certainly helps that Affleck filled in his supporting cast with phenomenal talent.

Hamm! Who doesn’t love Hamm? This pony knows all the tricks. As Don Draper, he’s the suavest m**********r on the planet. But comb his hair forward and his whole demeanor changes. His F.B.I. agent is still cocky, but his intimidating asides make him sound like a dick. Don’t get me wrong; he’s a delightful dick. It’s very fun watching him kick some serious a*s during a raid and try to get the guys to cave in the interrogation room. He’s supposed to be the good guy, but he’s obsessed with winning at all costs, and that makes him shady as far as heroes go. MacRay and his gang aren’t necessarily the bad (or good) guys either. That’s part of what makes “The Town” so entertaining. In many ways, it’s a standard heist picture. But it’s also about people. It’s like Ben Stiller’s character says in “The Zero Effect”. “There aren’t evil guys and innocent guys. It’s just…a bunch of guys”.

Like “Good Will Hunting,” “The Town” is all about redemption. But in this case, it’s not just for Doug MacRay, but also for Ben Affleck. Clearly tired of the “Gigli” jokes, he’s worked hard to better himself as an actor and a filmmaker. And apparently, it’s paying off.

How do you like them apples?

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