Honor among thieves

“You dirty rat!”

“You dirty rat!”

Rated 4.0

One of the better heist movies in many a year comes to us courtesy of the surprisingly adept directorial eyes of Ben Affleck. The man has directed two good movies now, and this time out he even stars and co-writes. He’s becoming a one-man entertainment force to be reckoned with. Let the comparisons to Clint Eastwood begin.

The Town takes place in Charlestown, a suburb of Boston, Mass. Opening credits reveal that Charlestown is a historical hub for bank robberies, where fathers pass down their knowledge to their sons, and the robbery beat goes on.

Affleck plays Doug MacRay, a professional hockey washout who returns to Charlestown and essentially takes over the family business from his dad (Chris Cooper, who has one scene, and it’s a doozy). He’s the heist architect of a costume-wearing, ruthless thievery posse that includes his hotheaded friend James (a sinister, creepy Jeremy Renner).

The film opens up with a stunning bank robbery sequence that echoes elements of the Patrick Swayze’s trashy classic Point Break. The robbers dress in scary skeleton costumes and tear through the bank with a ferocity that suggests anything bad can and will happen. They wind up taking the assistant manager, Claire (Rebecca Hall), as a hostage. In the aftermath, Doug follows Claire to make sure she isn’t going to identify anybody in the crew to the authorities, and the rest, while predictable, is dramatically effective.

While there are logistical elements I could nitpick and one major screen goof involving a stunt driver, I enjoyed the movie at face value. The impossibly handsome Jon Hamm plays an FBI agent trying to take down Doug’s crew, and it’s amazing what the crew is able to get away with under Hamm’s supposedly watchful eye.

If Hamm’s character was the greatest agent in the world and was able to prevent the robbers from flying into action, we would miss out on some amazingly well done heist sequences. Of note is a rather electric one where the crew dresses like ugly nuns toting automatic weapons. It’s a strange, theatric choice for any band of thieves, but it sure looks cool up there on the screen.

Affleck delivers one of his career best performances as the central character and helps himself along by eliciting great work from the likes of Hamm, Hall and Renner. Hall is a star in the making, creating a truly sympathetic character who somehow doesn’t come off as a weak victim getting duped by a nefarious criminal.

Affleck, in turn, manages to make his potentially nefarious criminal simply a nice guy with some major, major flaws. His character has a fair share in common with De Niro’s career criminal in Heat. Hamm, whose character can’t stop a heist to save his life, still manages to instill his character with an air of competence and virtue.

Stealing every scene he occupies is Renner as the trigger-happy crewmember who gets to keep his position even though his actions constantly put the team in harm’s way. I made the Eastwood comparison before for Affleck, and I will make the James Cagney comparison now for Renner. Somebody needs to write a Cagney biopic for this guy, pronto. He was born to play the part.

Blake Lively shows up as a townie and occasional Doug love interest and shows that she has some versatility. The ever-reliable Pete Postlethwaite is also on hand as a crime lord using a flower shop as a cover.

So we get a good heist movie that can be filed alongside genre classics like Heat and Dog Day Afternoon, along with one of the year’s better love stories. Affleck can take his seat in the “Actor-Directors with Juice” club alongside Eastwood, in the chair recently vacated by crazy-assed Mel Gibson. Better check that seat for gum and hallucinogenic drugs before you sit down, Ben.