By Kit Bowen

As the director/star/co-writer of the The Town, Ben Affleck crafts a compelling, tight-knit bank heist drama.

Like he did with his directorial debut Gone Baby Gone, Affleck sets The Town in his hometown of Boston, specifically Charlestown, a rather on-other-side-of-the-tracks area reserved for some hardcore locals. The story centers on a group of childhood friends, who have grown up on the streets and now rob banks together in scary-looking masks. Their leader is Douglas MacRay (Affleck), a level-headed, probably too smart for his environs type of guy who inherited the “family business” from his imprisoned dad (Chris Cooper). What Doug really wants is to get out of dodge but so far hasn’t found the courage to leave.

Doug’s best friend James (Jeremy Renner) is the kind of hot-headed, trigger happy individual you feel uncomfortable watching because you don’t know what kind of crazy, violent thing he’ll do next (think Joe Pesci, only cuter). This kind of behavior includes spontaneously taking pretty bank manager Claire (Rebecca Hall) hostage when a job starts to get a little too hairy. Doug calms things down before it turns bad, and they let Claire go, but James finds out she lives in their neighborhood – an outsider, no less – and begins to worry she might spell trouble for them. Meaning, he kinda wants to take her out of the picture. Doug isn’t having any of THAT but says he’ll follow her. He does, they meet and guess what? The sparks of romance fly. Natch. Meanwhile, the local FBI office, headed by Agent Frawley (Jon Hamm), is already onto the band of thieves but have yet been able to pin anything on them directly, which royally pisses Frawley off.

Actually, The Town is a fairly paint-by-numbers one-last-heist drama, with beats and plot points you can see coming a mile off. But one of the things that makes it so intriguing is the performances. Affleck doesn’t really need to stretch as the actor, playing it close to the vest, but he also does it with a nice subtlety. He and Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) have a good rapport, even if Hall is mostly relegated to playing the unsuspecting love interest. Hamm, too, is a little wasted as the typical hapless FBI agent trying to catch his man but it’s nice to see him try on another character besides Mad Men’s dapper Don Draper. Of course, The Hurt Locker’s Renner shines as James, effectively chewing it up, both heartbreaking and scary at the same time. But the honest-to-god real surprise is Gossip Girl’s Blake Lively, as James’ sister and Doug’s on-again, off-again paramour. She sheds any soapy TV pretensions, pours on the thick Boston accent and brings it. You won’t recognize her.

The other worthwhile factor to The Town is Affleck as director; the guy has found his niche. Sure, he has gone from matinee idol to box office poison, but he has also paid attention along the way and LEARNED. After big stinkers Gigli and Jersey Girl in 2004, he took a break and re-examined his career, coming back in 2006 with a small but memorable turn in Hollywoodland. Then he really nailed it with his directing debut, the excellent Gone Baby Gone in 2007. I truly admire an entertainer who knows when he has hit skids and decides to do things differently, to switch things up. His He’s Just Not That Into You co-star Jennifer Aniston should take a little advice. Needless to say, The Town just proves his weight in gold behind the camera. Affleck isn’t indulgent, economizes his shots, doesn’t let things run on and on, doesn’t try to be an auteur — but clearly feels completely comfortable with his surroundings. The Town is a keeper.