When Gone Baby Gone entered multiplexes in 2007, Ben Affleck soared from a tolerable star with a tattered professional reputation to an unexpectedly graceful filmmaker. Much like his directorial debut, a lot was riding on Affleck’s follow-up effort, 2010’s The Town – and, more directly, there was a lot riding on Affleck himself. For one, the actor had to prove that Gone Baby Gone (one of the best movies of 2007) was not the Hollywood equivalent of a one-hit wonder, and he also had to overcome the fresh new challenge of directing himself; a potential hazard he prudently avoided the first time around. Affleck was up to the challenge, however, and the result is this compelling, masterfully-realised crime saga that’s worthy of Michael Mann’s Heat. To be sure, The Town was put together using a litany of familiar genre elements, but the manner in which Affleck assembled the clichés results in an engrossing two-hour cinematic experience. Affleck afforded a spellbinding pulse to the proceedings; composing a bravura suspense piece that effectively examines the anxiety of criminal behaviour.

An opening caption prefacing The Town states that the neighbourhood of Charlestown, Boston has produced more bank robbers and armoured car thieves than anywhere else in the world. Also, bank robbing in Charlestown is passed down from generation to generation like any normal trade. The protagonist, Doug MacRay (Affleck), is from such a family. Doug leads a troubled life, pulling off bank and armoured truck robberies with a number of loyal comrades. When one heist goes slightly askew, Doug’s hot-headed partner James (Renner) takes bank manager Claire (Hall) as a hostage, and only releases her once the coast is clear. Feeling guilt and attraction for Claire, Doug attempts to develop a relationship with the frightened woman partly as a way to keep tabs on her while the FBI carries out an investigation. As they begin to fall for each other, Doug prepares to pull off what he intends to be his final bank heist before skipping town. However, his troubles are just beginning, as local crime kingpin Fergie (Postlethwaite) makes it clear that his business with Doug is not over yet.

The Town is based on Chuck Hogan’s novel Prince of Thieves, which Affleck adapted with co-writers Aaron Stockard (who co-wrote Gone Baby Gone, too) and Peter Craig. Compared to other recent crime-dramas, this movie particularly stands out due to the character nuances. Gone are the days when robbers are outright bad and cops are outright good – it’s grey all over here, with Doug trying to be noble and ethical while the tactics of the FBI are less honourable than those of the men they’re pursuing. Additionally, a lot of the drama and energy of The Town is derived from two sources: the romance between Doug and Claire, and the friction among the criminals. The film may not be as morally complex or thematically deep as Gone Baby Gone, but it demonstrates Affleck’s capacity to tackle a more mainstream project. The filmmaker took a standard cops & robbers film fare (with a thief looking to go straight, a woman representing his last chance at a normal life, a dogged lawman out to catch the crook, and the proverbial one last job) and made well-worn genre tropes seem as real as any story you’d see on the news.

2007’s Gone Baby Gone was a more insular thriller, permitting Affleck the opportunity to build as a filmmaker without the crushing burden of a bloated budget or a large scope. The Town further inches Affleck up the industry ladder, as this picture assumes a more commercial batting stance with a number of shootouts and heist sequences. Luckily, Affleck’s additional acting duties did not impact his directorial skill. During his years as an actor, Affleck clearly studied those helming his various productions, and those lessons have paid dividends. The action sequences are bursting with intoxicating tension here, and are easy to follow (Affleck did not adopt rapid-fire cutting or shaky-cam techniques). The robbers’ disguises are all fairly creepy as well, from the “Skeletor with dreadlocks” masks to the horror film nun outfits, and this lends a sense of macabre to the heists. Additionally, The Town captures the look and feel of Charlestown excellently – it’s brimming with authenticity. This is one of those productions in which the setting becomes a character in itself.

While The Town proves that Affleck is deft at both style and substance, the film also demonstrates that he is an excellent director of actors, including himself. This is one of Affleck’s best performances in years, and it reminds us that he is an actor of considerable talent when not saddled with unfortunate dialogue or bad directors (like Michael Bay). However, the real show-stealer of this picture is Jeremy Renner, who infused his character of James with meaty callousness and nothing-to-lose lunacy. Renner is virtually a 21st Century James Cagney here – he’s a pug-faced time bomb of a thug. In addition, Rebecca Hall is exceptional as Claire, while Blake Lively disappeared completely into the role of James’ sister. Pete Postlethwaite also makes an impact as Fergie, as does Jon Hamm as an FBI agent. Meanwhile, Chris Cooper is outstanding as Doug’s incarcerated father. Although his appearance amounts to a cameo, Cooper’s role emphasises the fact that Doug’s fate is virtually inevitable given his background.

Fans of the crime genre should be very pleased with The Town, while other movie-goers should be happy to enjoy an adult-minded thriller after a summer of explosions and special effects. Whatever its minor flaws, this is a finely-tuned instance of genre filmmaking, and a turbulent story explored with a steady hand. The Town is positive proof that Affleck’s directorial debut was no fluke, and it launches Affleck into the upper echelon of American filmmaking talent.