Three years ago, middleweight actor and celebrity Ben Affleck stunned us all by proving he was a crackerjack director with Gone Baby Gone, a pretty darn fine and more than a little bit harrowing crime drama set in the rundown quarters of Affleck's beloved Boston. It took a while for him to brave the helmsman's seat again, but at least he's proved that his bright debut was no fluke, with The Town, which isn't quite as good as the director's breakthrough, though it's a hell of a lot more fun to watch, and boasts what is, almost beyond debate, Affleck's finest career performance (and this after a few key performances in films like Hollywoodland and Extract have demonstrated that he's a pretty great character actor when he's not trying to be a leading man).

The story (adapted by Affleck, Aaron Stockard, and Peter Craig from a Chuck Hogan novel), you're familiar with. I promise. Affleck plays Doug MacRay, a "townie" - used rather specifically here to refer to a resident of the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston, which the film posits as being the breeding ground of more hold-up artists per capita than an other place on earth - and a real top-notch bank robber. The film opens seconds before his latest and greatest heist, during which his best friend Jim Coughlin (Jeremy Renner) jumps the gun a bit and kidnaps one of the bank's assistant managers, Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall). For reasons that he would be doubtlessly unable to explain, Doug becomes instantly infatuated with the terrified young woman, and "accidentally" bumps into her a couple of days later, striking up a romance and helping her through her post-traumatic stress, obviously hiding the fact that he was the proximate cause of said stress. In the meantime, FBI Agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm) and Boston detective Dino Ciampa (Titus Welliver) are trying their damnedest to shut down Doug's crew. While he protests that he's really for real out of the life, he gets pulled in for a couple One Last Jobs that go spectacularly off the rails, seriously threatening what he views as his one chance at escaping the hellhole of Charlestown with Claire.

Convenient as it is to say that there are few stories hoarier than the reliable "soul-wracked criminal just wants to get out of the life and find love, but the One Last Job comes along and fucks him", and yet it feels like a really long time since we've had one with the unabashed purity of The Town, which is a grand old-timey bank robber picture that isn't a caper film, isn't a social document, isn't anything but a story about a single criminal. It's kind of thrilling to see a genre restored to its essentials in this way; and all the better in that The Town is pretty great at it. It's not without its flaws: Affleck's direction often reveals a certain confusion about what to do with the camera, which ace cinematographer Robert Elswit is only sometimes able to compensate for; and it's awfully hard to argue with a straight face that the film earns its generous 123 minute running time. There's a dithering score by David Buckley and Harry Gregson-Williams that indulges in sentimentality at moments where sentimentality makes no sense whatsoever, and there are more than a couple moments in which Doug acts in a stupid way more to push the plot along than because it fits his character to act that way. These are all valid problems.

But in the face of what the move does right! it's hard for an old genre movie sentimentalist like myself to watch Affleck and company marshaling so many musty old tropes with so little shame, and not feel a twinge or three of absolutely gratitude for what The Town is and does. It's a character study crossed with a doomed romance propped against a critique of machismo set inside a penetrating study of an exact physical place, and it does all of these things extremely well. One can thrash about forever looking for the place to start, and I'm going to settle on the actors: one of the best casts from the biggest roles to the tiniest walk-on parts assembled all year, with Renner and Hall possibly standing out a wee bit more than everybody else (Chris Cooper's one-scene performance as Doug's angry jailbird dad is also particularly magnificent, marred only by the actor's Boston accident, easily the least convincing in the whole movie). If nobody is quite as blow-the-doors-off amazing as Casey Affleck and Amy Ryan were in Gone Baby Gone, that's not really a slight on director Ben's affinity with his cast, particularly with actor Ben, rarely given a chance to look this hollowed-out and bedraggled onscreen. It's hard to imagine The Town working at all as a narrative or emotional experience without Affleck's performance, really: since the whole thing hinges on Doug's all-encompassing fatigue, and his clearly misguided but charmingly optimistic belief that Claire is his key to a better way of life, we need to feel the whole essence of that fatigue every time Doug moves or talks; and this Affleck does. It's a revelation, to me at least - if a more generous viewer has known that Affleck has had this kind of performance in him all along, then I must simply tip my hat to that person's clearer perception.

More important to the film than any of the characters, possibly including Doug himself, is the Town of the title, the roughed-up, economic wasteland of Charlestown. I have been playing with various phrases to describe the way that the filmmakers shot on location, and all I arrive at is the blatantly paradoxical "vividly desaturated"; there's a curious sense that the film is both more real than real and deliberately, artificial stripped of life. It's tempting to hand-wave this all away with "Well, that's why Elswit is a genius", and it is the case that he's a genius, and his use of digital color correction in this film (I can't fathom how it might have been done in-camera) is godly. That the camera angles aren't always the best - and worse, that the editing sometimes assumes that we know the layout of the streets as well as the characters do - hurts the film's depiction of Charlestown, but in the main, Affleck finds a way to capture something essential about this place, making it one of the most uncommonly "present" locations in a location shoot in some time.

Above and beyond everything else, the film is just a great watch: from just before the midpoint, Affleck raises the tension at a steady enough clip, but without calling attention to it, that I found myself with a pretty giant knot in my stomach for a good hour, wondering exactly when everything would go straight to hell for the characters. It's a cunning balance of the nasty-mindedness of knowing that doom is hovering over the story like a black cloud, and the emotional rush of hoping that somehow, these characters will pull everything out and everything will be okay, despite our awareness that Doug is a pretty worthless person in just about every respect. In the end, The Town manages to strike a balance that does honor to its cold-blooded depiction of human desperation while also giving us the semblance of benignity as we leave the theater; it feels neither forced nor contrived, but leaves us just jagged enough to know that we just got movie'd. It's not a masterpiece, but it's blisteringly memorable, and continues to demonstrate that in Ben Affleck beats the heart of a great American film director, if he only worked at it a little bit more.