Ben Affleck has always been a, well, irritating actor.
There's virtually no denying Affleck's talent, on full display since his Oscar win for Good Will Hunting in 1997. After Affleck's Oscar win, most regarded him as the latest greatest thing to hit Hollywood despite the fact that the actor had been toiling around L.A. for a good 16 years when he finally hit it big with Good Will Hunting.
There's a reason it took Affleck 16 years to really break out, save for a couple notable performances in Kevin Smith flicks. For all his talent, and Affleck is immensely talented, the actor has often proven to be a lazy, unmotivated and self-absorbed actor who smirks and lounges his way through his cinematic endeavors.
Then, in 2007, Affleck surprised virtually everyone in Hollywood with his critically acclaimed directorial debut for Gone Baby Gone, one of the better crime dramas of the last decade.
Was it marriage? Fatherhood? Some other cinematic enlightenment? It's hard to explain what's happened to Affleck, but the smirk has gone away and been replaced by visionary directing and the actor's best work in years in a trend that continues with his latest flick, the crime thriller The Town, a film based upon Chuck Hogan's award-winning crime novel "Prince of Thieves."
The film centers around a gang of bank robbers who live in Charlestown, Massachusetts, said to be the bank robbery capital of the United States. Affleck is Doug MacRay, who grew up in a family of bank robbers but who had a chance to escape the fate when drafted into the National Hockey League. Equal parts ego and laziness sealed MacRay's fate and, before long, he was following his father (Chris Cooper, in what amounts to a cameo) in the family business along with his best friend, Jem (Jeremy Renner) and Jem's little sister (a nearly unrecognizable Blake Lively) led by the neighborhood crime kingpin, Fergie (Pete Postlethwaite).
The Town kicks off with a brutal bank robbery during which the bank's manager, Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), is taken hostage before being released unharmed a little bit later. Jem, however, isn't quite so comfortable with just letting Claire go on with her life and wants to go take care of things a little more completely. MacRay, on the other hand, won't hear of it and begins to tail the skittish woman to make sure she's been sufficiently spooked by the experience and won't be running off to the F.B.I., headed locally by Agent Frawley (Jon Hamm), who is eager to put this increasingly brutal gang behind bars.
The Town manages to sell the most unlikely of romances, a spark of attraction between captor and their former captive who has no idea how they really first met. It seems an unlikely combination, but Affleck is the perfect blend of macho, bad guy bravado mixed in with just the right amount of conscience to make this all feel, at least slightly, like this outlandish romance really could and does happen.
Rebecca Hall is Affleck's equal on the big screen, a remarkable blend of vulnerability and strength, determination and passion. The scenes between the two actors are both intense and deeply moving. Perhaps most astoundingly, this burgeoning relationship feels rich and alive despite Claire's woundedness and MacRay's big secret.
Jeremy Renner, who finally got the kudos he's long deserved in last year's The Hurt Locker, takes what could have easily been a one-note role and gives a ferocious, spirited performance as the high-strung, frighteningly edgy Jem. As the F.B.I. agent determined to track down this gang, Mad Men's Jon Hamm brings to mind the best of those old G-men flicks with their conflicted, driven characters and out of control egos. Completely abandoning any semblance of a Gossip Girl, Blake Lively is remarkable as the strung out baby sister of Jem who's still in love with MacRay and trying despite herself to be a decent mother.
It's well known that Affleck is from these geographical parts, and his familiarity with the region, the attitude and the aura that accompanies Boston gives The Town an authenticity all too often lacking from these crime thrillers. Affleck beautifully manages his cast and his locations, including a closing finale at Fenway Park that is nothing short of superb.
As much a rich human drama as it is a heist film, Affleck's The Town is an electrifying, emotionally involving and visually satisfying crime thriller in which the universal themes of consequences, hope, second chances, love and redemption are brought vividly to life in what may very well be 2010's best crime thriller.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic