Two pals (director Ben Affleck, left, and Jeremy Renner) pose as cops to rob Fenway Park in the crime drama "The Town."
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Starring: Ben Affleck, Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Hall, Chris Cooper, Jon Hamm, Pete Postlethwaite, Blake Lively
Directed by: Ben Affleck
Other: A Warner Bros. release. Rated R for drug use, language, sexual situations, violence. 124 minutes
"The Town" is a slickly constructed heist thriller that dares to suggest that a person born in violence and brokenness can yearn for something better and can muster the strength to break the cultural and familial chains that have kept him a prisoner all of his life.
Yet, just like breaking up, breaking away is hard to do.
This impressive crime drama - directed with assured style and unexpected humor by star Ben Affleck - deftly balances an empathetic character study with the obligatory genre elements of cat-and-mouse game, car chases and lots of guns blasting away.
A harrowing car chase through the narrow streets of Boston is the showcase sequence in "The Town," with Dylan Tichenor's pulse-pumping editing every bit as tight as the tiny alleys negotiated by getaway cars and police cruisers.
One of the toughest denizens of this world is Doug MacRay (Affleck), a working-class guy in Charlestown, Mass., a piece of turf that we're informed has spawned more bank robbers and armored-car plunderers than any place else in the country.
MacRay works as part of an elite team of local robbers who hit both banks and armored cars with impunity.
They strike with split-second accuracy. They know how to cover their tracks with bleach and fire. They know not to do anything that might compromise their capitalistic enterprise.
Until the day when MacRay, his lifelong pal Jim Coughlin ("Hurt Locker" star Jeremy Renner) and their team put on masks, storm a bank and force a pretty executive to open the safe.
Coughlin insists on taking the woman, Claire Keesey (a charismatic, fresh-faced Rebecca Hall), hostage just in case, although he releases her unharmed.
Worried that she might be able to identify the robbers, MacRay pretends to be a regular guy at a Laundromat. Just to, you know, check up on her.
He strikes up a casual chat with Claire, who has no idea he's the man who put a gun to her head at the bank.
They hit it off.
They start to date.
He tells her about his terrible upbringing, and about the mother who left him.
She tells him about the bank robbers, and how she never saw their faces.
"I'm sure I'd recognize their voices if I heard them again,"she says.
MacRay suppresses a smile.
No good can come from this relationship, especially when MacRay keeps it a secret.
When impulsive Coughlin discovers his best buddy having lunch with an eyewitness to their crime, all sound suddenly dies, and the deathly silent scene crackles with tension supplied by Renner's subtle, restrained explosion.
"The Town" proves that Affleck's first directorial job on "Gone Baby Gone" was no fluke; this guy's got a true storytelling touch.
Of course, the love of a good woman redeeming a bad man is an old chestnut in Hollywood circles.
Affleck, cowriting the screenplay based on Chuck Hogan's novel "Prince of Thieves," turns it into something fresh and sincere.
Unlike most characters in a cops-and-robbers tale, Affleck's MacRay is mired in the mess of real life, trapped by guilt and family ties.
He has a daughter and a lover (a brittle, unrecognizable Blake Lively) he knows he must dump if he wants to go.
He has an old-school crime boss (a frighteningly gaunt Pete Postlethwaite) who will kill Claire rather than let one of his best guys leave.
Plus, he has a distant, dour father (Chris Cooper in a memorable but brief role) in jail for the long haul.
Then he also has Adam Frawley ("Mad Men" star Jon Hamm), a dedicated FBI agent with a bad haircut, hot on the trail of the bank robbers.
Despite the abundance of talent in the cast, "The Town" is rightfully Affleck's movie.
Without succumbing to the desire to be likable, Affleck's MacRay remains a true tough guy who lets just enough of his dreams come out to make him sympathetic,
And to earn our silent cheers as he struggles down a dark and dangerous road to redemption.