Ben Affleck must have been keyed-up by the rapturous reception afforded to his directorial debut Gone Baby Gone. So keyed-up, in fact, that he elected, with his second feature behind the camera, to take on a renewed challenge: the rehabilitation of Ben Affleck, screen actor. For though Baby provided a showcase role for Affleck's baby brother Casey, big Ben kept himself offscreen throughout that debut, marking a clean break from a past that gave us Gigli and Pearl Harbor; well, with The Town, Affleck the actor is back front and centre, a little older and wiser and more reflective, but not noticeably less square-jawed, which means he looks somewhat out of place onscreen in AA meetings populated by extras who've visibly lived a life.
As troubled Boston bank robber Doug MacRay, the director-star grants himself moments that wouldn't have been beyond the Affleck of old: an early instance of shirtlessness, as though to demonstrate to us he hasn't entirely gone to seed, and a sex scene with a trashed-up Blake Lively, underlining (in a perhaps not strictly necessary fashion, given the gun-toting we've already observed him practising in his day job) the character's potency. Yet Affleck also challenges himself in ways we've not previously seen, having to go toe-to-toe with (and not appearing ill-matched against) actors of the calibre of Chris Cooper, Jeremy Renner and Mad Men's Jon Hamm - in the latter's case, initiating a battle royale of the squarejaws, with the winner presumably going through to meet Luke Wilson in the final.
The reason for all this confrontation is that MacRay and his crew have just pulled off a score that would have been considered perfect - the robbers getting away alive with the cash, leaving the FBI precious little to go on - were it not for the one aspect that's been preying on Doug's mind: the fate of Claire (Rebecca Hall), the bank manager Doug's impetuous, trigger-happy cohort Jem (Renner) took hostage in the wake of the heist and left standing on the banks of the Charles river, awaiting the worst. Something about Claire's humanity, her grace under fire - her general all-round loveliness, in which the casting of Hall plays a not inconsiderable part - nags at Doug: when he discovers she lives in his neighborhood - that she is, in fact, a socially mobile one of them - he follows her to the launderette, asks her out, and eventually ends up in bed with the one witness who could send him away for the rest of his life.
The Town is, then, the business of countless smalltown crime dramas: the history of a conflicted man held back from a fresh start, a bright future, by the ties that bind him to a criminal past. (Needless to say, Jem is not best pleased when he hears Doug has taken a shine to the witness, and has only the best intentions toward her.) The distinguishing feature here - as Gone Baby Gone's working-class Boston milieu suggested - is that Affleck and his co-writer Aaron Stockard really know how this town works: you see it in the manner Doug's dreams of escape are made literal in the double signifier of the planes passing over a neighborhood generally impoverished enough to sit under a flight path. Affleck extends that very Wire-like policy of casting non-professionals in supporting roles for extra authenticity, and the script displays a good ear for telling detail: Hamm's G-man bemoaning there's no way his unit can get 24-hour surveillance warrants on the robbers "unless they convert to Islam", a prison being summarised as so soft, "they get Ben and Jerry's ice cream".
The filmmakers' deep-rooted feel for the various strata and sub-strata of their location - a locale especially conducive to bank robberies, as the crime statistics show - grants them licence to shoot exhilarating getaway pursuits through narrow mazes of brownstone streets, where some degree of local knowledge would indeed be preferable, if not a lifesaver; but Affleck and Stockard are also alert to subtler, class-oriented tensions in a way few contemporary American screenwriters truly are: clock the casual, derogatory use of the term "toonie" (or townie) to denote some form of social mobility denied to the city's underclasses, or the utterly dismissive manner in which Pete Postlethwaite's florist/Mob boss, strafing the pricks off his roses even as he lances an even greater thorn in Doug's side, sums up Claire as "a nice new girlfriend who lives on the Park".
In other words, it's a chance for Affleck the director to show he can handle both character and action, and in this, he mostly succeeds. True, Hamm's underdramatised detection doesn't connect all its dots on camera, and - depending upon personal taste - it'll either be a generic pleasure or an inevitability that Doug gets boxed into performing one last, fateful heist. (Though it's a nice irony it should involve him donning police uniform, with a further dab of local flavour in its Fenway Park setting, home to baseball's Red Sox - this is, we gather, a last, desperate shot at the big leagues, embarked upon by a player facing up to obligatory retirement.) We've seen worse Michael Mann impersonations, not least by Mann himself in his recent projects.
The new Ben Affleck is, however, capable of far greater self-awareness than the dumb ox of yore, referring to The Town in press interviews as "a modest work" - and whenever money becomes too tight to mention, for filmmakers and audience-goers alike, a modest work, one which doesn't overly peacock or flaunt its lavish expenses, may just fit the bill to perfection. Where Gone Baby Gone was a smash-and-grab raid on our emotions, from a personality we never thought capable of such things, The Town is certainly a stealthier, more insinuating work, with the aim of sneaking something intelligent, grown-up even, into the multiplexes - in this, it joins Inception as among the most encouraging features released by a major studio in 2010.
It is, for one, very finely acted, with not one of the leads striking a false note, right down to Titus Welliver as Hamm's weary sidekick, and ex-Gossip Girl Lively, who - after last year's The Private Lives of Pippa Lee - here confirms a growing reputation for delivering eye-catching supporting work, absolutely embodying the frustration of a young mother who's just learnt her sometime fuckbuddy has given his new girl a diamond necklace, while she's left clinging onto his baby: one way of understanding The Town is as a portrait of a city as unfinished business, a catalogue of loose ends a man might trip on while walking these streets. As for Affleck - underlining that his directorial debut was no fluke, but merely phase one of an impressive new development strategy - I think we can all take a deep breath and safety exclaim: Gigli-what now?
The Town opens nationwide from Friday.