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“The Town” captures spirit of Boston but overdoes action

Affleck (left) and Renner make for a formidable team of thieves in "The Town."

There’s a strange air of historical reverence and foreboding about Boston that’s singular. Don’t expect anyone to mistake it for New York, Chicago, Los Angeles; Boston exists in a class all its own. And it takes a mighty talent to tease out that energy and make it seem genial enough to draw us in, make us comfortable and ominous and tense enough to keep us breathless. Ben Affleck — the star of “Reindeer Games” and, Lord help us, “Gigli” — is precisely the man for the job. Who knew?

Looking back, the signs were there. In his acting career, Affleck has excelled at playing conflicted souls: Gavin in “Changing Lanes,” George Reeves in “Hollywoodland.” The parts that required him to show up and look dashing were largely forgettable. Turning a director’s camera on the streets of Boston, his hometown, then, seems like a logical step. He proved in “Gone Baby Gone” that it was a brilliant one, too. While “The Town,” with its amazingly filmed car chases, doesn’t soar quite as high as “Gone Baby Gone,” it comes damn close, this time with Affleck tackling the confused protagonist, Doug MacRay.

MacRay is a product of Charlestown, a Boston neighborhood pegged as a breeding ground for bank robbers. In Charlestown, bank robbery isn’t so much a crime as a learned trade. Doug’s father (Chris Cooper), now doing hard time for a job that went sour, served as walking, talking how-to guide. Doug hammered out the finer points with best friend James “Jem” Coughlin (Jeremy Renner) at his side. Now Doug’s the cool head behind a successful bank robbery ring. Success starts to come at a price as Jem, a wild card with a volcanic temper and no scruples, becomes increasingly unpredictable. He’s the reason MacRay’s team takes its first hostage, bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) — a mistake that proves doubly dangerous when they find out she lives just a few blocks from her office. Jem’s eerily content to “take care of her,” but MacRay takes a kinder approach: He chats her up at a laundromat, strikes up a friendship with her and ends up liking her. Affleck displays a blessedly careful touch on the romance angle, letting Claire and Doug’s relationship develop at a slow, unforced pace. Their bond feels delicate but real, and it gives Doug the push he needs to consider leaving Charlestown.

Skipping out, however, won’t be easy. There’s FBI agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm sporting a half-hearted Boston brogue), whose team encircles the bank robbers like hungry foxes closing in on a rabbit’s den. Renner’s splendidly unnerving Jem abides his own bizarre moral code and expects Doug to fall in line as well. Charlestown crime boss Fergie (Pete Postlethwaite, the only actor capable of making a florist seem menacing) isn’t keen on Doug skipping out the job, either. The walls are closing in on all sides for Doug, trapped by both his past and his present, and yet Affleck smartly holds back when he could have gone for weepy drama. One thing he doesn’t dial down is the violence. As much as there was in “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town” has more — so much and so showy that it detracts from the more human storyline of Doug struggling with his loyalty to Charlestown and his desire to leave it in his rearview. The final act of “The Town” involves too many bloody showdowns to count, but there is a marvelous car chase filmed in such a ground-level way that it’s terrifying and captures the claustrophobic feel of Boston’s narrow streets.

Another strong point of “The Town” is Affleck’s ability to write characters that can’t be pigeonholed. Everyone exists in the gray areas. Renner, in an electrifying performance, plays Jem as unpredictable, scary and volatile, but he feels a brotherly protectiveness for Doug. Hamm’s hard-nosed cop has a moral flexibility that lets him to steamroll people to get what he wants. Claire’s anger toward Doug and her affection for him have her in an agonizing stalemate. The moral grayness gets drowned out by the gunfire and it’s underused, but it’s there and it’s powerful. How do you draw the line between “right” and “wrong” when loyalty is involved? Does that line even exist? “The Town” doesn’t answer, but what matters is that Affleck cares enough to pose the question.

Grade: B+

10 (working) directors I love

Parters in crime: Ethan (left) and Joel Coen make the ultimate directing duo.

Partners in crime: Ethan (left) and Joel Coen make the ultimate directing duo.

Steven Spielberg is not on this list.

You want a controversial statement? Well, there it is. After “Crystal Skull,” don’t even think of saying his name to me. And since I’m apparently flirting with controversy and confrontation today (I’m tarty like that), here’s another: You won’t see Ridley Scott’s name here. Peter Jackson’s been given a pass. Ditto George Lucas.

However, here are a few directors who make the cut. Some are obvious (see No. 1), others are a tad obscure and some are maybe even a little questionable (hey, I never said I was mainstream):

1. Joel + Ethan Coen — The shock! The pure and utter dismay! Right … anyone who knows me knows that I’m a late-in-life Coen convert, so my decision to award them top honors is hardly surprising. But, really, could any two directors be any more deserving? This is the duo that gave us terse, meticulously paced masterpieces like “No Country for Old Men,” “Fargo” and “Blood Simple” and inspired, idiotic comedies like “The Big Lebowski” and “Raising Arizona.” That warped humor, that eye for minute details and foreshadowing — love ’em or hate ’em, you can’t deny Joel and Ethan have imagination and talent to burn.

2. Clint Eastwood — Eastwood’s a prime reminder that we should never go for the knee-jerk sneer of disdain when an actor steps behind the camera. For as fine an actor as Eastwood is, he’s an even better director with a knack for casting (who but Hillary Swank could have made “Million-Dollar Baby” so hopeful and bittersweet?) and a desire to plumb the dark depths of the human psyche (see “Unforgiven,” “Mystic River” and “Changeling”). What’s more remarkable is the fact that, at 79, he’s only nicked the surface of his directing abilities … and that’s a miracle in itself.

3. Martin Scorcese — Let’s go ahead and state the obvious: Nobody makes gangster sagas like Martin Scorcese. It simply can’t be done (not even by the Coen brothers). He is the modern master of the genre. But what people forget is that he’s a genius when it comes to creating movies that explore man’s darker side, the blind rage and the ambition and the fear that take us to evil places. From “The Aviator” to “Cape Fear” to “The Departed,” arguably Scorcese’s magnum opus, this is a director whose take-no-prisoners approach translates into stunning films.

4. Christopher Nolan — It would be easy to think Nolan’s such a hot commodity because he reinvigorated the long-dead and much-maligned Batman franchise. Though he did that, and radiantly, he also makes movies that are rather fearless in the way they jumble our concepts of linear time and play with human memory (“Memento”) and challenge us to play architect in order to find out what’s really happening (“The Prestige”). His films demand intelligence and vigilence, but the payoffs are extraordinary. My only question: After “The Dark Knight,” how can he do better?

Todd Solondz

Todd Solondz, King of the Sadsacks

5. Todd Solondz — Solondz is a director who’s hard to like, much less love. He makes experimental little films about ordinary people with few redeeming qualities, odes to the pathetic masses leading lives of quiet desperation. Even worse, he makes the kind of movies that contain no traces of optimism, or hope, or anything resembling closure (re: “Storytelling” and “Happiness”). But in a world where fluff like “The Proposal” lobotomizes us regularly, isn’t that kind of terribly refreshing?

6. Sam Raimi — How unfortunate that these days Raimi is known as “the guy who directed those ‘Spiderman’ movies,” for there was a time — long, long ago, in the ’80s — where he made the kind of unapologetic horror camp (the “Evil Dead” series) that delighted and repulsed us. He jumps from serious movies (“A Simple Plan” is the quintessential thriller) to “Spiderman” to the recent “Drag Me to Hell.” And he never takes himself too seriously. What’s not to love?

7. David Fincher — Fincher has made a very fine career out of making very fine thrillers that possess a kind of bruising intensity, sly, punishing humor and startling intelligence. (He is, after all, the man who gave us “Fight Club.” Yes, “Fight Club.”) It’s his niche, and if he rarely strays from it, well, it hardly matters — he’s so good at being dark and twisty (recall “Se7en”) we don’t want him to. Then he brains us with “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and now he’s making a movie about the creators of Facebook. I sense that Fincher’s zigging when we expected him to zag … and I dig that about him.

8. Steve Buscemi — There’s not much difference between Steve Buscemi the actor and Steve Buscemi the director. In his performances, he gives us fully realized but completely understated characters like Seymour in “Ghost World,” who use bitter humor to keep the world at a distance. In his movies, like the exquisite “Trees Lounge” and the haunting “Lonesome Jim,” he creates worlds where people are subdued and real and loose ends are left dangling. And, in his way, that makes him one of the most amazingly observant directors working today.

Behold the Jedi Master of Piquant Wit: Alexander Payne

Behold the Jedi Master of Piquant Wit: Alexander Payne

9. Alexander Payne — Payne is one of those directors who lives to frustrate his fans because he makes sharp, attentive, penetrating satires/character studies (“Election” and “Sideways,” you may have noticed, appear proudly in my Top 100) but he makes far too few of them. This speaks, no doubt, to his meticulous nature, since his films are flawless. So I have but one request, Mr. Payne: More please, and the sooner the better.

10. Sofia Coppola — It’s the eternal question: Will Sofia ever live up to her last name? Or live down that dreadful performance in “Godfather III”? Given the fact that she’s created films as innovative as “Marie Antoinette” (criminally underrated) and stunning sleepers like “The Virgin Suicides” and “Lost in Translation,” she’s well on her way. There’s a few more masterpieces in her yet.

Honorable mentions: Tarsem Singh (“The Fall”); Rian Johnson (“Brick,” “The Brothers Bloom”); Kimberly Peirce (“Boys Don’t Cry,” “Stop-Loss”); Pedro Almodovar (“Todo Sobre Mi Made,” “Volver”); Quentin Tarantino; John Hughes; Judd Apatow (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin”); and Fernando Meirelles (“City of God,” “The Constant Gardener”).