Years ago a young actor named Ben Affleck soared to super stardom with the critically acclaimed film “Good Will Hunting”. To follow that up Ben starred in a series of very successful (although not always critically appreciated) blockbusters such as “Armageddon”, “Pearl Harbor”, and “Daredevil”. But after suffering a string of box office disappointments (everyone remembers “Gigli”, need I say more) Ben disappeared for a brief time from the public eye.

Then in 2006, he re-emerged as a talented dramatic actor in his excellent portrayal of the late George Reeves in “Hollywoodland”. To which he followed up with his surprisingly brilliant big screen directorial debut with “Gone Baby Gone”. Since that time, Ben has chosen his projects with much more care, and his most recent directing and acting effort is the stellar heist film, “The Town”.

“The Town” is the story of a crew of bank robbers that are as close as brothers and led by the increasingly reluctant Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck). Despite their numerous successful heists, Doug has grown tired of “the life”, and having fallen for a young woman named Claire (Rebecca Hall) he now has a reason to walk away from not only crime, but his “brothers” and the only city he’s ever known. However, the more Doug tries to break away, the harder his best friend Jimmy (Jeremy Renner) pulls to keep him around for the proverbial “one last job”; all the while a seasoned FBI agent (Jon Hamm) is closing in on the crew and time is running out.

With so many heist films having been released over the years it’s undoubtedly become difficult for any writer to craft a story that can be considered fresh within this sub-genre. However, the approach this movie takes by allowing the viewer a fly-on-the-wall perspective for every step of the crime gave it a more original feel. Of course, having a solid script and top-notch acting didn’t hurt either.

The screenplay written by Peter Craig (first-time screenwriter) and the writing duo behind “Gone Baby Gone”, Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard, is the perfect blend of intensity, drama, action, and even a little bit of romance. Each facet of this film’s story works flawlessly together to create one of the strongest entries into the heist film sub-genre in quite some time.

The story for the entire film was perfectly paced to allow for plenty of character development, along with a natural increase in intensity and/or anxiety prior to the heists. Nothing about the film seemed rushed in order to get to the next job, and the intensity (or anxiety, depending) of each character was shared by the audience throughout the film. Truth be told, drawing an audience in to a movie to such a degree is something that not every film manages to accomplish and to do so is an achievement unto itself.

Guiding the story is director Ben Affleck, who was pulling triple duty on this film serving as co-writer, star, and director. With his directorial work here and in his previous film, “Gone Baby Gone”, Ben is shaping up to become one of the best directors of his time. Some have even gone on to say that he could be the next Clint Eastwood (in terms of directing), and with that statement I would have to agree.

Ben has now shown that he clearly knows how to execute intense dramatic pieces, and even some well orchestrated action sequences as well. Also, his ability to get top-notch performances from his fellow actors is a testament to how respected he is as a director, despite his past as a media lightning rod.

From Ben’s previous film and now to “The Town” one can clearly see his incredible talent as a filmmaker, and I for one look forward to seeing what he directs next.

While on the subject of Ben Affleck, let’s discuss his performance, along with his costars while we’re at it. Leading the ensemble cast, as I’ve already mentioned, is Ben Affleck, and his performance here is one of his best. Actually, it is probably his absolute best so far, narrowly beating out his terrific job in “Hollywoodland”.

As Doug MacRay, Ben displays a decidedly darker edge, necessary to lead a crew of thieves, but also a surprisingly gentle nature that values life above all. Whether it is the lives of his fellow crew members or their victims, Doug will go to great lengths to plan his heists with every life taken into account.

On the opposite side of that coin is Jeremy Renner’s character and Doug’s best friend, Jimmy. Jeremy who is no stranger to an excellent performance (see him in “The Hurt Locker” for further evidence) truly earned his Academy Award nomination with his fiercely malevolent portrayal. In this role, Jeremy is almost unrecognizable from his Boston accent to his physical appearance to his downright evil nature, this character is as much of a departure from his role in the aforementioned as one can possibly get, and he excels in it at every turn.

In the other primary supporting roles we find even more incredible performances, including one I found to be very surprising. First off, is actor Jon Hamm who has found himself with an incredible surge in his career with a terrific performance in this film coupled with his continued success on AMC’s “Mad Men”. I find myself perplexed by the fact that Jon hasn’t been more prominent in feature films prior to this one, a problem that I believe will likely be remedied from now on.

As the lead FBI agent tracking Doug and his crew, Jon exudes authority and strength every step of the way, and an intensity that reveals a man consumed by his work. Jon had moments in the film where he could have played the role more over-the-top and borderline maniacal in his quest for justice, but Jon played everything believably and never once made a moment feel forced.

Serving as Ben’s love interest is actress Rebecca Hall (“Frost/Nixon”) who is not the most recognizable of actresses out there, but soon could be with performances like this one. Her performance was incredibly raw in its emotional punch, yet with an inner strength that belied her character’s troubled life.

As the most surprising cast member in terms of performance is actress Blake Lively (TV’s “Gossip Girl”) as Doug’s off-and-on “friend with benefits”. Blake’s performance as a drug addicted, possibly abused, single mother is unexpectedly profound given that I always felt she seemed like just another pretty face that couldn’t act for anything. I now stand corrected, and if her future performances carry as much weight as this one then she will definitely be one to watch.

Lastly, are two always amazing and top-notch character actors that only appear for a short time in this film, Chris Cooper (“The Bourne Identity”) and Pete Postlethwaite (“Inception”). Despite their lack of screen time, both actors make the absolute most of there scenes and deliver terrific performances as well. Typically when actors of their caliber are placed in such small roles, I would have felt disappointed that their talents were used for so little. However, in this film, I think their brief appearances were appropriately limited and served the movie perfectly.

Sadly, the ever-reliable Pete Postlethwaite passed away a month or so ago, but at least he got to appear in two of the best films of 2010, “Inception” and of course, “The Town”. He was never the most well-known of actors, at least not by name, but whenever you would see him in a movie you would always recognize him and know that his would be a performance to watch.

In the end, boasting incredible performances from the entire cast and a terrific story, “The Town” is a taut, intense heist thriller that is expertly handled from start to finish courtesy of director, co-writer, and star Ben Affleck. This movie was essentially the shot of adrenaline that was needed to reinvigorate this increasingly generic sub-genre of cinema.

“The Town” is rated R for violence, language, drug references, and sexuality.