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‘The Town’

Boston’s a town of tradition. Family tradition.

If your name’s Kennedy, you go into politics.

And if you’re from the blue-collar enclave of Charlestown, raised in the shadow of the Bunker Hill monument, then you might pursue a life of crime. Just like your father before you.

That’s the setup for the crime thriller "The Town." Co-written, directed by and starring all-grown-up Boston boy Ben Affleck, it proves that Affleck’s impressive 2007 directorial debut, "Gone Baby Gone," was no fluke.

Like that gripping, gritty drama, "The Town" boasts chowdah-thick Beantown atmosphere and a refreshing focus on something other than stuff blowing up real good. (Although there’s a bit of that too.)

It also boasts some standout performances — although, alas, not from Affleck himself.

Not that it’s really his fault. After all, he’s sharing scenes with "Hurt Locker’s" Jeremy Renner, who once again demonstrates electrifying, less-is-more intensity.

Our introduction to these partners in crime comes in arrestingly high-octane fashion, as Doug MacRay (Affleck) and loose-cannon ex-con Jem (Renner) lead two colleagues in a precision armored car and bank heist.

Their faces concealed by Halloween skull masks, they execute the stickup with intimidating flair, demanding instant obedience as they commandeer the bank.

But the manager, Claire (Rebecca Hall), is so spooked she can’t dial the vault’s combination without fumbling in fear — at which point the masked Doug reveals the empathic guy beneath the criminal facade.

"Take your time," he says. "Breathe."

That kind of nice-guy impulse could cause problems. Not the ones you might expect, though.

Naturally, there’s a hard-charging FBI agent ("Mad Men’s" stalwart Jon Hamm) on the case, determined to take this crooked crew down. With a little help from a fellow agent (steady "Gone Baby Gone" co-star Titus Welliver) who’s turned his back on his Charlestown roots.

The FBI might be less of a threat, however, than some of Doug’s own supposed allies, from the quietly intimidating crime lord (Pete Postlethwaite) who operates from a local flower shop to MacRay’s sometime squeeze, Jem’s druggy sister Krista ("Gossip Girl’s" Blake Lively, obviously happy to be slumming).

Speaking of Jem, he’s not at all happy that Claire is still trying to carry on with her life despite the lingering trauma of the robbery. But Doug knows better than to turn his rabid pal on their victim. He’ll take care of Claire.

Not the way Jem would take care of Claire, of course, because Doug still has more than one shred of nice-guy decency inside him — and more on the way once he, inevitably, falls for Claire.

Yes, the plot’s straight-outta-Hollywood, but Affleck grounds "The Town’s" sometimes strained storytelling through a palpable sense of place — and people. (The script — based on Chuck Hogan’s 2004 novel "Prince of Thieves" — is credited to Affleck, Peter Craig and "Gone Baby Gone’s" Aaron Stockard.)

Even when the plot twists seem arbitrary and far-fetched, the characters seem utterly true to their tradition-bound world.

In part, that’s because "The Town" explores their alliances, codes and rituals in almost anthropological detail.

It’s also because Affleck and cinematographer Robert Elswit (an Oscar-winner for "There Will Be Blood") employ such an in-your-face, up-close-and-personal visual style. Heavy on the hand-held camera movements, this approach plunges audiences into the action — hang on to your queasy stomach during that extended car chase, folks! — and implicates viewers in Doug’s conflicted criminal pursuits.

But a little goes a long way, and occasionally "The Town" suffers from shaky-cam overload, undercutting the movie’s suspense — especially in the more intimate dramatic scenes. (In the slam-bang action sequences, it just means we can’t always tell what’s going on — but that happens so often these days that we ought to be used to it by now.)

As a result, it’s up to the actors to keep "The Town" rooted dramatically. And, once again, Affleck assembles a cast capable of delivering the goods.

For every get-the-job-done portrayal (Hamm, breathing take-charge life into a one-note role, or Affleck himself as that likable lug Doug), there’s a performance that jolts you with laserlike focus — as when Doug visits his unrepentant, long-imprisoned father (icy one-scene wonder Chris Cooper).

Hall continues a string of memorable performances ("Vicky Cristina Barcelona" and "Please Give," to name two), giving Claire a wary sweetness and vulnerability that echo Doug’s own better instincts.

And, as he did in "Hurt Locker," Renner proves a magnetically unsettling presence as the hellbent Jem, whose hair-trigger temper and strike-first ferocity reflect not only his twisted code of conduct but "The Town’s" as well.

If that means that Renner winds up stealing the movie from Affleck the actor, it’s a mark of honor for Affleck the director to let him get away with it.

He obviously knows a rising tide lifts all boats — and, as "The Town" shows, he’s well on his way to becoming a consistently arresting filmmaker.

Even if he never sails any further, cinematically, than Boston Harbor.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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