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Prince of Thieves
by Chuck Hogan
Discounted paperback from Amazon)

. "The Town"

Sticking to his favorite locale for literary material to adapt and direct, Ben Affleck returns to the environs of Boston for his second filmmaking expedition after his somewhat successful "Gone Baby Gone" in 2007. This time he takes on the central role, as well, having developed the screenplay with co-writer Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard working from the novel by Chuck Hogan, "Prince of Thieves," which title nails the subject of this smart heist thriller and character piece better than the one he went for.

The town in question is the old navy yard that became the neighborhood of East Boston called Charlestown, an Irish-American quarter playing host to generations of robbers who make a specialty of banks and armored cars. In this capital of crime, Doug Mackray (Affleck, "State of Play") has taken on the family business by leading a small band of accomplices. His role model, from whom this career sprang, is Stephen MacRay (Chris Cooper, "The Bourne Supremacy"), his father, incarcerated for life.

With loose cannon James "Jem" Coughlin (unrestrainable Jeremy Renner) in the gang's number two role, Doug has pulled off such a succession of highly-skilled well-planned robberies that amidst all the criminal action in the town these boys have come to the attention of the FBI. Special Agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm) in particular. But Doug, for all his skill and intelligence, isn't the planner. Basically, he and the boys are in the employ of a couple of guys who run a flower shop, with scary Fergus "Fergie" Colm (Pete Postlethwaite) the actual mastermind who lays out the action plan and launders the money.

The first act is brilliant in its step-by-step method of establishing the individual nature of the characters and the gathering emotional storm this particular chemistry will deliver--the catalyst being the moral and ethical differences between Doug, the smart and sensible leader of the crew, and his sociopathic boyhood pal Jem.

Wearing full head masks of nuns, they knock off a bank in which one Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona") is the manager. When she is too shocked and flustered to spin the vault's combination lock to do it properly, Doug tells her to take her time. Take a deep breathe and collect yourself. Suddenly he's a psychologist. Which tells us that this guy is a lot more than your standard bank thief in a mask. Things get dicey once the bags are filled with money and Doug, perhaps under the allure of the lady manager, decides to take her as a hostage for the escape. Once out of danger, he releases her.

It turns out she lives in the same neighborhood that the boys do. Jem is concerned about it. What if she saw or knows something that could finger them? He wants to pay her a little visit to find out what she does know that could aid the cops. Doug knows how that would go. Kidnap her, drill her and, maybe, silence her permanently to solve his problem. Doug insists on "taking care of it."

What with Doug's charm, superior intelligence and impressive sensitivity, (demonstrated to us by how he handled the girl during the heist and the getaway), the meeting he engineers as a casual incident confirms what he already knows... that he was deeply attracted to her the moment he laid eyes on her. In the way she opens up to him, responding to his cool protectiveness, she's as taken as he is. As long as he doesn't tell her who he really is, this is a romance that's going to be a keeper.

But Jem's concerns are still brewing. And the agent and his team are getting cleverer about identifying this gang. Doug is feeling, for the first time, his potential away from a life of crime. He starts thinking that he'd like to quit his life and move somewhere else... with Claire. Certainly not with the lively and gorgeous but depraved Krista Coughlin (Blake Lively, "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants"), Jem's sister, who's had a thing for him for years.

This is solid, as a concept rich in dimensional detail and a framework for conflict, action, intricate chase scenes and, above all else, splendid acting. Let there be no more doubt about the extent of Affleck's capabilities and taste for a story.

As with many another filmgoer, I anticipated seeing Renner in a new role after his extraordinary Oscar-nominated performance in "The Hurt Locker." If there was any performance in 2009 that had more visceral power than that one I simply don't know what it was. This part may not make as great an impression, but the man delivers the goods with his killer role here. He's a study in explosive energy, barely contained.

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The Soundtrack by Harry Gregson-Williams

Lively, in addition to becoming a licentious creature of bars, drugs and prostitution with the edgy hyperagitated unease of a junkie, is, in my book, a perfect 10, and masterful cinematographer Robert Elswit ("Salt," "There Will Be Blood") explores the contours of her ravishing face with tasty textural lighting. Though the role isn't major, it's one of those minor elements that helps to justify the price of admission.

Rebecca Hall is lovely and credible in a role that profits by her poise, expressiveness and trusting vulnerability.

The film also delivers a good sense of place and criminal culture, a regard for human behavior and an absence of the sort of exaggeration that's used to reach for the teenage crowd. All-in-all, a fine achievement that isn't overdone or half-baked. It's adult and engaging and worthy of a green light.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Ben Affleck and Jeremy Renner
No heist is too audacious.

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