Three years ago, actor turned director Ben Affleck surprised critics with his highly accomplished debut feature, Gone Baby Gone, a disturbing, morally ambiguous drama about the search for an abducted kid. The Town, a thriller about Boston bank robbers, is a more conventional assignment, but it underlines Affleck's credentials as an actor's director. The plotting is strictly formulaic. What gives the film heft and pathos are the character performances and Affleck's vivid use of his Boston locations.
Affleck himself plays the lead: cocksure gang leader Doug MacRay who specialises in explosive and intricately planned heists. His gang may be capable of violence, but the film-makers go out of their way to let us know that, beneath the bravado, he is a decent and intelligent man.
Attempts at combining hardboiled action with reflective and emotional scenes are only fitfully effective. At times, it's as if we're watching two different movies stitched together. In one, Doug and the gang are pitting their wits against the equally brutal and unscrupulous FBI special agent Frawley (played by Jon Hamm of Mad Men fame). In the other, we're in the realm of soulful romantic drama as Doug, somewhat improbably, woos the beautiful bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), whom his gang had briefly taken hostage. Between the many shoot-outs and car chases, all staged with plenty of élan, are ponderous scenes showing Claire digging away at her allotment.
What is admirable about The Town is the attention to detail. Every character has a back story. Jeremy Renner (who excelled as the bomb-disposal expert in The Hurt Locker) is in typically febrile mode as Doug's childhood friend and henchman, Jem, a borderline psychotic who nonetheless has a sensitive side.
There are two tremendous cameos. Chris Cooper excels as Doug's father, Stephen MacRay. Languishing behind bars in a maximum-security prison, Stephen is an embittered and taciturn figure fighting to maintain his dignity. Equally striking is British actor Pete Postlethwaite as "the florist", the vicious criminal mastermind who oversees every heist.
At its best, The Town rekindles memories of those 70s American thrillers like Serpico or Charley Varrick in which characterisation was as important as action. However, the storytelling is often undermined by posturing, macho dialogue.
Based on Chuck Hogan's novel Prince of Thieves, the film suffers from the same identity crisis as its vacillating lead character. Just as Doug can't decide whether he's a tough guy or a sensitive, introspective type, the film-makers seem uncertain what tone they're trying to strike. The juxtaposition of romantic scenes and big set-pieces is often disconcerting. Although Affleck elicits some very strong performances and shows a flair for filming action, what The Town ultimately lacks is a sense of where it is going or why. Affleck has clearly tried to put a personal imprint on his material and to make his second feature more than just another cops-and-robbers movie. It is hard, though, to transcend a storyline that is quite so routine.