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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+

Haley is fearsome in “Nightmare on Elm Street” update

Freddy Kreuger 2010 (Jackie Earle Haley) doesn't make jokes; he just wants to Julienne your femoral artery.

Before Samuel Bayer’s re-imagining of horror classic “A Nightmare on Elm Street” hit theaters, moviegoers split in two groups. There was the “Robert Englund Reigns Supreme, Idiots!” camp; on the other side stood the “Jackie Earle Haley Almost Won an Oscar, So Give Him a Chance!” camp. (There were rumors of a splinter cell, known only as “Who Cares?”) Post-release, aside from the few odd defectors, both camps have remained intact.

Ipso facto, how this 21st-century recreation stacks up to the 1984 original depends on which camp you call home. For more than a year I held tight to the belief that Jackie Earle Haley is one scary-as-brimstone chap when he doesn’t wear knife-fingered gloves. He did not let me down. If anything, I like this Freddy Kreuger better than Robert Englund’s. (No, I’m not sorry I typed that. And yes, I am prepared to die for this cause.)

But in truth, so grim and bloodcurdling is Haley’s turn as Freddy Kreuger that it defies comparison to Robert Englund’s more impish trickster/murderer; the characters are that different. The sweater-and-hat getup is all the two have in common. Haley uses every part of himself — slitty eyes, body language, voice pulled up from the bowels of hell (thank you, voice enhancement) — to plunge the Sleepytime Slasher to new depths. Gone are the wordplay and sly sarcasm of yesteryear; Haley’s Kreuger has no time for trifles. There’s only one thing on his mind: killing the Elm Street teens who have forgotten him. But first comes the psychological torture. The glee he takes in that task is worth losing some R.E.M. sleep over.

The water is never safe ... not even bathtub water.

Calling other aspects of this redux an unqualified success isn’t so easy. Some rearranging of the cast causes Bayer’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street” to lose some of the vigor Wes Craven’s film had. Bayer places so much emphasis on the sadistic murderer himself that the young actors disappear into the background, important only because they feed Kreuger’s perverted appetite. That’s not to say that wasn’t the case in other films in the “Nightmare” franchise and in 85% of horror films overall, but it’s a problem when the heroine, Nancy (played here by Rooney Mara), looks relatively unimportant until the last 45 minutes. We can’t help but compare her to Heather Langenkamp, the quick-thinking protagonist of Craven’s film who was capable of so much more than weeping and running for dear life. Bayer’s Nancy, through no fault of Mara, comes up short and leaves the 2010 update without a “good” to Kreuger’s “evil.” The setup of Nancy as Kreuger’s opponent needs to happen much sooner and much more clearly than it does. As a tradeoff, some of the dream sequences — especially Nancy’s — are more fluid while others are cheesy.

All this talk of Nancy requires for some kind of plot rundown for Bayer’s film. Anyone who saw the Wes Craven version has the idea, but Bayer exercises some liberties. Most notable is his re-envisioning of the story of Freddy Kreuger’s life and death, which includes allegations of physical abuse and pedophilia that may or may not be true. (This story, in my opinion, is more believable and less convoluted.) In 2010, Kreuger, with his burned face and soulless eyes, begins showing up in the dreams of Springwood’s teens: Kris (Katie Cassidy), Dean (Kellan Lutz), Jesse (Thomas Dekker), Quentin (Kyle Gallner) and Nancy. Because they don’t run in the same social circle, they barely know each other — or so they think. The element of parental cover-up is there, so the teens don’t realize that they share a history that might kill them all. Dead Teen-Ager Movies have a lot in common with Shakespearean tragedies that way.

By the you-saw-this-coming close, Bayer has made a few noteworthy changes as well as a few mistakes. Has he reinvigorated the series? Let’s not get crazy. But Jackie Earle Haley has made Freddy Kreuger a demonic force to be reckoned with, and his performance makes all the difference.

Grade: C+

The seventh time tends to get a little … sick

This is the face of a man you do not want to meet in a dark alley. Or a well-lit Bed Bath and Beyond.

In regular clothing, Jackie Earle Haley is freaky enough that you wonder about him — mostly about if you could bust through the top of the elevator, alien-style, should you find yourself caught in there with him. Alone. Surely he’s the nicest guy, probably loves puppies and kittens and rainbows, but admit it: The man can conjure such frightful menace the only way you want to be in a room alone with him is if you have a fully-loaded Uzi. With back-up ammo.

And maybe an atom bomb for good measure.

So naturally the thought of him as Freddy Kreuger is wet-my-new-pants scary. My appreciation for his talents — extolled way back in July 2009 — leads me to think his performance as Kreuger in Samuel Bayer’s 2010 “Nightmare on Elm Street” will not let anyone down, and even might surprise more than a few Robert Englund devotees who swear the part can’t be played by anyone else. Couple that Jackie Earle Haley love with a positive review of his performance from my source for all things horror, Will at The Film Reel, and I’m still stoked. Perhaps it helps that unlike many cinephiles out there, I’ve just begun embracing the horror genre and I’ve only seen the original “Nightmare on Elm Street” (yeeeeeaaaars ago) and 2003’s gloriously terrible “Freddy vs. Jason,” so there’s little basis for comparison. Sometimes, when it comes to remakes, I consider that a very good thing.

And thus the countdown begins. Freddy’s back, and this time he’s not about to let Jason have all the fun.