Silver Screen: The Town ***1/2

Silver Screen: The Town  ***1/2
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Silver Screen: The Town ***1/2
Bryan Miller

The once-ridiculed Ben Affleck continues to impress with his sophomore directorial effort The Town, an action-heavy crime drama with a firecracker ensemble cast.

Director and cowriter Affleck leads the crew-- both on and offscreen, in every sense of the word-- as Doug MacRay, a washed-up ex-hockey star living in Boston who has followed in his incarcerated father's footsteps as a bank robber. His gang includes hotheaded best bud Jimmy (The Hurt Locker's Jeremy Renner), whose family raised Doug after his mother disappeared and his father went into state custody, and whose trampy, drug-addled sister (Blake Lively) may or not be Doug's baby mama.

The volatile Jimmy gets the boys in deep early on, beating one bank manager during a robbery and unnecessarily taking another hostage. That hostage is Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), a kind-hearted beauty who becomes the only person potentially able to identify the robbers. Jimmy wants her dead, and Doug says he'll take care of it, but when he follows her, he winds up asking her out rather than bumping her off.

Meanwhile, a dedicated FBI agent (Mad Men's Jon Hamm) is hot on the hoodlums' trail. He's convinced Claire knows more than she's revealing, unaware that Doug is manipulating her testimony, unbeknownst to her.

It's a sharp setup, one based on Chuck Hogan's novel Prince of Thieves and nicely adapted by Affleck and cowriters Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard. Despite the pulpy premise, it's mostly a character drama, and a well-executed one at that. Affleck's MacRay is sympathetic without ever being softened, caught between loyalty and a burgeoning sense of right and wrong. Renner is intense as his increasingly estranged best friend whose unhinged behavior threatens everyone around. Even Lively scores as a fickle strumpet with a vague sense of her own impending doom.

It's a bit of a shame, then, when the action-drama balance tips a little too far in the movie's final act. Most of The Town is quiet and talky, punctuated by frenetic action. The bank robbery sequences are truly thrilling, but the climactic shootout, taking place in a location so essential to the city they might as well be ducking for cover behind a "Welcome to Boston" sign, prioritizes cordite over character and turns what could have been more interesting final confrontations into too-familiar drawdowns. That said, The Town contains some of the best gunfights this side of Heat, to which Affleck's film is significantly but not overly indebted.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the film is MacRay's backstory, and his entanglement with the seedier parts of the city itself. He's still working for his dad's old boss, a small-time mastermind running a front as a florist (the gristly Pete Postlethwaite). And though he only has one scene, Chris Cooper threatens to heist the whole movie as Affleck's imprisoned pop; their brief time onscreen together makes one wish the movie was more about their relationship than a romance between Affleck and Hall or a crumbling bromance between him and Renner.

Still, the man who was once J-Lo's flashiest accessory is working hard to redeem himself after a slew of spotty career choices. The Town is an improvement on his already impressive debut, Gone Baby Gone, and reminds us why Affleck the actor seemed poised to upstage best pal Matt Damon after Good Will Hunting.