Ben Affleck and Jeremy Renner in The TownTHE TOWN

Director/co-writer/star Ben Affleck's crime drama The Town is an enjoyable, frustrating, fascinating contradiction: a movie with a storyline that's nearly impossible to buy, yet one performed and directed with such assurance and strength that it's nearly impossible not to buy. You can roll your eyes at the film's many clichés and contrivances, but you can't say they're presented with anything less than full commitment; for a two-hour-plus movie that doesn't provide even one truly novel character, situation, insight, or plot twist, The Town is remarkably fresh.

For hopefully understandable reason, then, I'm a little hesitant to describe the movie's narrative, because it's the exact opposite of "fresh." Set in the Charlestown district of Boston - an area that, as an introductory title card tells us, boasts America's highest density of armored-car and bank robbers - The Town finds Affleck playing Doug MacRay, a longtime blue-collar thief looking to get out of the business, yet coerced into staying by his hotheaded partner and best friend, Jem (Jeremy Renner). During one particular robbery, the men take, as a hostage, bank employee Claire (Rebecca Hall), whom they eventually let go, and with whom Doug eventually falls in love. (Blindfolded during the heist, Claire is unaware that Doug was one of her captors.) Meanwhile, the volatile Jem wants the woman removed from the equation, a dogged FBI agent (Jon Hamm) is ready to pounce, an elderly Irish gangster (Pete Postlethwaite) threatens to kill Doug if he leaves town, Doug's crew readies itself for One Last Big Score ... .

Is any of this sounding formulaic? A better question: Is any of this not? Based on the Chuck Hogan novel Prince of Thieves, and with a screenplay by Affleck, Peter Craig, and Aaron Stockard - Affleck's co-writer on his superior directorial debut, 2007's Gone Baby Gone - The Town is almost relentless in its presentation of familiar genre tropes, some of which, unfortunately, have the effect of pulling you out of the movie completely. (You might feel a thudding in your temple when Claire reveals her dream of renovating the local Boys & Girls Club facility, which just happens to be where Doug and his crew meet for their regular, post-theft rendezvous.) And while Affleck and Hall play off one another with considerable delicacy and charm, their characters' romance never feels like more than an all-too-convenient conceit, a means of injecting "heart" into a fundamentally, and appropriately, heartless caper.

Yet even while I was bemoaning the film's trajectory, I was never less than wholly entertained; from the energetic drive of the heist sequences to the shabbily/vibrantly lived-in locales to the R-dropping extras who lend The Town wonderful area texture, Affleck's sophomore effort is an expert audience-pleaser, a minor crime saga with major filmmaking gravitas. Tonally, the movie only goes seriously off-the-rails once, in a scene that finds Doug and Jem attempting to get past Fenway Park security disguised as cops. (With Affleck exaggerating his already-pretty-thick Boston accent, the sequence brings to mind nothing so much as that weird Good Will Hunting throwaway in which Affleck's Chuckie shows up for - and makes a deliberate mess of - one of Will's job interviews.) Beyond that brief head-scratcher, though, The Town is beautifully executed, controlled and intense and smart, and buoyed by a cast that's close to unimpeachable.

I'm still on enough of a Hurt Locker high that I grinned just about every time Renner showed up here, but the actor's alternately cajoling and menacing Jem should thrill even those who missed his work in Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar-winner; given the film's De Niro-in-Mean-Streets, Pesci-in-GoodFellas role, Renner is a fantastically engaging, unpredictable presence. (His best scene - the whole movie's best scene - finds Renner reacting to the unexpected appearance of Doug's new love interest with stunned, sociopathically amused incredulity.) Hamm, after a shaky start, has a couple of marvelously threatening interrogations with the excellent Blake Lively as Doug's occasional girlfriend, and with Affleck himself - the Mad Men star is never better, or funnier, than when derisively imitating Doug's accent - and there are first-rate contributions by Postlethwaite, Gone Baby Gone's Slaine and Titus Welliver, and, for one scene, a hypnotically haggard Chris Cooper.

And it's a pleasure to report that Affleck not only directs well, but directs himself well, with his subtle, thoughtful turn among the finest performances - if not the finest - of his career. In his standout moment, Claire describes to Doug the traumatic events of her kidnapping; Doug responds with a simple, "I'm sorry," and Affleck lends so much nuance, and so much meaning, to those two words that he almost singlehandedly redeems The Town's rather questionable love story. Granted, considering his frequently regrettable filmography between 1997 and 2007, Affleck may have had plenty of practice uttering that sentiment, but it's inspiring to see that his recent work - Gone Baby Gone and The Town in particular - gives him very, very little to be apologetic about.

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