The title of The Town is short for Charlestown, a largely Irish working-class Boston suburb where robbery is the most prevalent family trade. By day, men such as Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck) hold down jobs as construction workers, shop keepers and mailmen. But during their off hours, many of them carry out brazen bank and armored-car heists, often in broad daylight, because they're so good at what they do and because crime is practically built into their DNA. They've been around it all their lives. They just can't help themselves.
The story of The Town, which is based on Chuck Hogan's novel Prince of Thieves, follows what happens when Doug has a crisis of conscience after falling for Claire (Rebecca Hall), a bank manager his gang briefly took hostage during their last job. Claire has no idea Doug is one of the masked men who blindfolded and kidnapped (but didn't harm) her, and she's charmed by his blunt yet gentle nature. She soothes the beast in him and offers him a glimpse of a lifestyle he's never even considered.
But Doug's roots in the neighborhood are deep. His father (Chris Cooper), a loveless, prickly man, is serving five life sentences in prison. His best friend and right-hand man, James (Jeremy Renner), has a violent temper and a loose trigger finger. And although Doug tries to limit the extent of his crimes - he doesn't believe in shooting cops and orders his crew to aim for the patrol cars' engine blocks instead - things sometimes go awry, with bloody results.
The Town marks a huge step up in scope and ambition for director Affleck, whose previous film, Gone Baby Gone, was a detective story driven mostly by character and dialogue. The Town has several big action set pieces, including an exciting car chase through a maze of impossibly narrow streets and a tremendous shoot out at Fenway Park, where the robbers, seriously outnumbered by cops, resort to ingenious tactics to attempt a clean getaway. These men are intelligent and crafty, which makes catching them a lot more difficult for the FBI agent (Jon Hamm) on their trail.
The Town does a good job of conveying life in a neighborhood so tough that children are practically raised to be criminals (Pete Postlewaithe is terrific as the world's meanest florist). Affleck's smooth, elegant directorial style is strong reminiscent of Clint Eastwood's: He takes his time establishing characters who are far more complex than they initially appear, then thrusts them into moral dilemmas with no easy outs. And, like most actors who direct, Affleck pays careful attention to the performances, populating this familiar scenario with doomed, flawed people whose messed-up lives are fascinating to watch. You just wouldn't want to live anywhere near them.
Cast: Ben Affleck, Rebecca Hall, Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm, Blake Lively, Pete Postlewaithe, Chris Cooper.
Director: Ben Affleck.
Screenwriters: Peter Craig, Ben Affleck, Aaron Stockard.
Producers: Basil Iwanyk, Graham King.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 125 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, gore, adult themes. Opens Friday Sept. 17 at area theaters.