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Ben Affleck tries to escape a life of crime in 'The Town'

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Ben Affleck’s sophomore effort The Town is terrific, flawed entertainment. Ben Affleck in "The Town." Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.The new bank heist flick is steeped in atmosphere and provides more than enough visceral thrills to prove for an exciting night at the movies.

Affleck, who gained much respect with his critically acclaimed gritty drama Gone Baby Gone, is a triple threat this time around: acting, directing, and co-writing. His effort here is far lighter in tone, and is more of a crowd-pleasing film rather than a dark tragedy. The final result is a bit lacking in the depth department but still undeniably rousing and involving all the same.

The movie opens with, surprise, an elaborate bank robbery. Five men, in masks, loot a downtown Boston bank with extreme finesse. From the initial takedown, to the burning of surveillance, and the careful escape, the sequence is breathtaking and beautifully executed. However, when one of the employees anonymously hits the security alarm, the group decides to take one of them hostage to use as collateral if the police somehow interrupt the operation. One of the robbers in particular, Doug (Affleck), is very sensitive to Claire (Rebecca Hall), assuring the blindfolded victim she will not be harmed, before letting her go by the beach.

After the job is finished, the loose cannon of the group, James (Jeremy Renner), advises they have the traumatized girl taken out because she lives in close proximity to their house and may be able to ID them. Doug, who seems to be the most level headed of the group, assures James he will follow Claire and make sure she isn’t talking to the FBI or pursuing the situation further.

Things don’t go exactly as planned when Doug develops an intense romantic attraction to Claire, which obviously complicates matters. Meanwhile, a bitter cop (Jon Hamm), whose been made to look like a fool based on the elusive robbers’ tactics, is hot on their trail, getting closer to catching them at the scene of the crime. Doug soon realizes this all will come to a head, and attempts to plan an escape to Florida, when he can start his life over.

Affleck runs The Town, and so the film flies or flounders based on his multiple efforts. Screenwriting wise, the film surprisingly borders on conventional and by the numbers in terms of story. Affleck also has a tendency to veer into the ludicrous, stretching the credibility of both character and plot on several different occasions. The script is the weakest aspect here.

The direction is much stronger. Affleck oozes style out the wazoo, and has a knack for suspense and creating highly affecting action sequences. He also has a strong hold on pace, and the film is consistently engaging in terms of flow. Perhaps, though, what he does best here as a director is create a very vivid world, a world that defines characters by their situations and confines them to their sad fates.

The performances are all fine across the board. Affleck is capable as the leading man, but lacks oomph. Renner is much more effective as the rickety loose cannon James. His character is certainly the most magnetic, followed by Hamm’s intense, on the brink cop. Hall as the love interest provides a nice amount of warmth and presence, despite her undeveloped character. Finally, Blake Lively brings surprising levity and sadness to a white trash teenage mom who remains engaged in an on/off relationship with Doug.

The Town, despite its shortcomings, remains a notable achievement, and proof that Affleck is a solid director. It never aspires to reach the genre heights of films like Heat, but it’s a frenetic, involving crime caper that’s sure to be one of the best films released this fall.

Contact Jim Teti at jteti@philly2philly.com

Photo: Warner Bros.