The action centerpiece of The Town is a high-speed police pursuit of an escaping band of armored-car robbers through the narrow streets of Boston’s North End, framed by a spray of automatic fire and an I-don’t-see-nothin’ move from a neighborhood cop. And it’s about the only kind of burrowing into the local byways we get, because Ben Affleck’s second directorial effort, this time also a starring vehicle, is a slicker, louder, and less idiosyncratic affair than his deft adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Gone Baby Gone. Cast with good actors who range from watchable to consistently resourceful, the movie also has an agenda split between its old-fashioned crime-melodrama heart and its souped-up interludes of lead-pipe beatings, shootouts, and an inevitable byproduct of the current wave of Bostonian-bad-boy shoot-‘em-ups: a climactic heist at Fenway Park that brings more mayhem to the ballpark’s environs than a Red Sox-Yankees series. Beneath its nasty pleasures and harsh Hubland vowels, there just isn’t anything new.
Switching districts from Gone Baby Gone‘s Dorchester to titular Charlestown (the per-capita leader in breeding bank robbers), Affleck takes the on-screen lead this time as a washed-up hockey player who, approaching middle age, attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings and works halfheartedly in a gravel pit while heading the area’s most efficient crew of armed thieves. When his gang discovers that the bank manager (Rebecca Hall) they briefly held hostage in their last masked getaway is a resident of the ‘hood, Affleck tails her and, as contrivance would have it, falls for her. Dispensing self-serving legal advice to his trusting ex-captive (“I watch CSI—all of ‘em”), the two bond over their respective childhood traumas: his mother’s flight to points unknown, her brother’s death. Both turn out to be fodder for third-act twists, instead of mere signifiers of angst like Affleck’s solitary nocturnal weightlifting and his growing yen to ditch his felonious career, touches that might seem a tad less musty if we hadn’t just seen them with a slightly artier sheen in The American.
The Town isn’t On the Waterfront, and shouldn’t have aspired to be, but its third-rate Brando-Saint-style love story is fortunately seasoned with baser cops n’ robbers characterizations that supply some kicks. “Let’s staaht fuckin’ all the witnesses!” yelps Affleck’s BFF Jeremy Renner, a two-time loser and natural-born killer; in the archetypal “loose cannon” thug role, Renner supplies a casual monstrousness to his tattooed man-child, and gets a Cagney-worthy bit of business for his last scene. Jon Hamm bristles charismatically as the alpha-dog F.B.I. man who’s on to Affleck’s band but can’t nail them; while he’s saddled with the most expository dialogue (and in his sole scene with his nemesis, some dreadfully familiar chest-thumping), he milks what comedy he can out of authoritative frustration: “We’re a national organization,” he coolly assures an adversary after a setback. With far less screen time but less burdensome virtue than the appealing Hall, Blake Lively scores as a drug mule and single mother who’s carried a lifelong torch for her sometimes-lay Affleck; she curls her lips with the erotic forthrightness of a hoop-earringed Ellen Barkin. Still, more briefly filling in the macho-fatalist landscape are Pete Postlethwaite as an infernal underworld lifer (and florist) and Chris Cooper underplaying his single prison-visitation scene as Affleck’s incarcerated, soul-dead dad.
It’s heartening to see actors saving one of their own, who should’ve risked more in his sophomore turn behind the camera. Affleck and cinematographer Robert Elswit, whose results are far more generically workmanlike than in his best collaborations with P.T. Anderson, fill the dialogue scenes with so many extreme close-ups that the film often looks like a Scruff Olympics pitting the star-director’s stubble against Hamm’s five o’clock shadow. And the movie’s rhythm goes seriously off-kilter in the protracted wrap-up; subsidiary scenes between Hamm and Lively have more juice than the central romance or the Fenway robbery. The Town kills a couple hours with less pain than most studio genre fare, but as a chaser to Affleck’s last offering of pungent Beantown brew, it’s near-beer.