By Bill Wine

KYW’s Bill Wine notes that Ben Affleck, the director of Gone Baby Gone, is back baby back, this time going on The Town.

Demonstrating that his splendid first effort in the director’s chair was no fluke, he delivers another absorbing noir thriller that’s both brainy and brawny. Unfortunately, this one fails to satisfy or deliver in quite the way that its predecessor did because of its moral fuzziness and the way in the late going that the sophomore director paints The Town red.

It’s a romantic but hardboiled crime dramedy set in Boston — where else? — about a thief, a female bank manager, and the FBI agent pursuing the thief and his crew.

Affleck stars as Doug MacRay, a longtime bank robber who runs with three other guys from his hood who pull off complicated capers that involve elaborate disguises.  They operate in Charlestown, their working-class, one-square-mile neighborhood, which, we are told, leads the nation in armed robbers and armored-car robberies, a penchant for which is passed down from one generation to the next as a family tradition.

Doug’s partner in crime is Jem, a volatile and menacing ex-con played by Jeremy Renner, whose sister Krista, a single mom played by Blake Lively, is also Doug’s drug-dealing ex. Claire, a bank manager played by Rebecca Hall who lives nearby, is traumatized when the masked thieves briefly take her hostage, but just might be able to identify them for the by-the-book FBI agent, Adam, played by Jon Hamm, who is after the gang on a full-time basis.

Jem feels they should therefore get rid of Claire, but Doug volunteers to look into it, does the surveillance himself, gets to know her without telling her that he was the guy behind the mask during her ordeal, and — wouldn’t you know it? — falls for her.  Suddenly he realizes that there’s something better out there for him.  Now he’s got to balance his feelings for her with the needs and safety of the local career-criminal crew while trying to ignore the menacing requests and threats of the gang’s boss, Pete Postlethwaite.

Ben Affleck the director follows up his impressive debut behind the camera with another striking and tense, if less coherent, noir thriller, working from an intriguing but problematic sense-of-place screenplay that he co-wrote with Peter Craig and Aaron Sockard, based on the 2004 novel by Chuck Hogan, Prince of Thieves.

It’s a fascinating character study with plenty of suspense and energetic pacing.  And, again, Affleck’s work with his cast is exemplary: Renner (impressively channeling James Cagney), Lively, and Hamm certainly hold their own, as does Chris Cooper in a virtual cameo as Doug’s dad.  It’s Hall, however, in her showiest role yet, who is magnificent in support, getting us on her side from frame one and keeping us there without forcing her vulnerability or neediness in our face.

Similarly, Affleck himself, who’s never been better than he is here as a prince of thieves who desperately wants to escape his life of crime, does wonders with a role that wins over an improbable degree of strong audience sympathy, especially when you consider that he’s playing an armed robber and that the weapons on display do get used.

And therein lies the fuzziness: nothing can make us forget that these are indeed armed robberies this guy is participating in, no matter how engaging he might be.

The three sharply choreographed heist sequences are certainly tense and exciting, as are the narrow-streets car-chase scenes, but it’s the film’s themes — class, loyalty, the abiding desire to go straight, and the visiting of a father’s sins on a son — that really register.  It’s actually the quiet and intimate passages of dialogue — the talk of The Town — between action sequences that linger in the memory.

That’s why it’s so disappointing when, in Act Three, Affleck loses his directorial grip and allows his heretofore complex and authentic drama to turn into a farfetched shoot-em-up.  By the time Fenway Park turns up as the scene of a crime, The Town has been turned upside down in a barrage of preposterousness.

Still, we’ll steal 2-1/2 stars out of 4 for hyphenate Ben Affleck’s gritty, authentic, but uneven The Town.  Until it pulls up lame near the finish line, this Boston marathon of a bankrobbing drama is a deliciously pulpy if problematic fiction.

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