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Affleck's Town worth visiting

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Is it safe to assume the "Bennifer" wisecracks are now behind us?

Granted, Ben Affleck's professional dalliances with Jennifer Lopez — specifically, Gigli and Jersey Girl — didn't exactly aid a career lull further bogged down by the likes of Surviving Christmas and Paycheck. But a better selection of roles as well as a stunning directorial debut with 2007's Gone Baby Gone have led to a resuscitation that continues with The Town, his second eye-catching effort as writer-director.

While The Town doesn't quite match the giddy pleasures of Gone Baby Gone (which, after all, was second only to No Country for Old Men on my 10 Best list for '07), it aptly illustrates that Affleck won't have to contend with either the label of "beginner's luck" or "sophomore jinx." A crackling drama with a fine sense of both spatial relationships (thank Affleck the director) and character relationships (thank Affleck the writer), this adaptation of Chuck Hogan's novel Prince of Thieves (co-scripted by Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard) is set in a section of Boston known for producing more bank robbers than anywhere else in the country. One of these heist-happy fellows is Doug MacRay (Affleck), who leads his three accomplices (the most volatile played by The Hurt Locker's Jeremy Renner) on a caper that results in the masked bandits briefly taking a hostage, bank employee Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall). Reluctantly deciding to keep tabs on Claire to ensure she doesn't get too chummy with the FBI (repped by Mad Men's Jon Hamm) and reveal anything that might incriminate the gang, Doug strikes up a friendship with the unsuspecting woman, a camaraderie that quickly turns into love.

A genre flick like this can't avoid all the clichés, but it manages to sidestep some of the biggest ones. At any rate, it's the little moments that make this stand out, whether it's a cop looking the other way or a final sip from a soft drink resting on the ground. The film can quickly shift from funny (as when Claire tells Doug that she'd be able to recognize her kidnappers' voices if she ever heard them again) to frightening (Pete Postlethwaite's wiry frame and low voice belie his demonic disposition), and it plays out in ways not entirely expected. Exhibiting a complete command of his craft, Affleck sets The Town on fire, and his career behind the camera should only continue to heat up.

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