The biggest mystery in the crime drama "The Town" concerns its director, co-writer and star, Ben Affleck.
In front of the camera, Affleck has been a dependably unconvincing actor, either trying too hard ("Chasing Amy") or barely bothering ("He's Just Not That Into You"). But sitting at a keyboard with Matt Damon, he produced the Oscar-winning screenplay for 1997's "Good Will Hunting." And in the director's chair for 2007's "Gone Baby Gone," he showed the skill and sensitivity of late-period Clint Eastwood.
Which Affleck is on display in "The Town?" Fortunately, the best one yet.
That's partly because Affleck is back in the familiar terrain of Boston, where his two other best films were set. (Why Affleck feels such affinity for blue-collar Bostonians is another mystery; he was raised in tweedy Cambridge.) "The Town" is named for the roughneck neighborhood of Charlestown, where career criminal Doug MacRay (Affleck) and his hotheaded partner, Jem (Jeremy Renner) lead a small but slick crew of bank robbers. After one job hits a snag, Doug begins keeping tabs on pretty bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) and soon falls for her. But it may be too late for love: FBI agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm) is closing in.
"The Town," adapted from Chuck Hogan's 2004 novel "Prince of Thieves," isn't the most original story, but Affleck brings it to life by shading in every detail - ratty pubs, lived-in T-shirts, those tricky accents - and staging some terrifically gripping heist scenes.
But what about Affleck's acting? Likable, charming and hard-edged - even during the mushy stuff - he's better than he's ever been. He just needed the right director.