| Ben Affleck (“Gone Baby Gone” and ”Good Will Hunting”) pulls off the Triple Crown of filmmaking in this crime thriller by starring in the lead role, co-writing the screenplay based on Chuck Hogan’s novel “Prince of Thieves” and directing for the second time in his career.
The title refers to Charlestown, a one-square-mile blue-collar neighborhood in Boston, where crime is part of life. Doug MacRay (Affleck), born and raised there, had a troubled childhood. His mother left when he was 6. His dad, Stephen (KC native Chris Cooper), is serving a life sentence in prison. Doug was taken in and raised by the Coughlin family. His best friend James “Jem” Coughlin (Jeremy Renner from “The Hurt Locker”) has been like a brother to him. Jem’s sister, Krista (Blake Lively from “Gossip Girl”), has been Doug’s girlfriend and presumably the mother of his infant daughter.
Doug had a chance to escape his roots when he was drafted into professional hockey, but he turned to the family business of crime when that didn’t work out. He is now the leader of a gang of four hoodlums, including his lieutenant Jem, with six armored truck heists and two bank robberies on their resume.
The movie opens with pulse-pounding action as a bank robbery is in progress. The pretty bank branch manager, Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall from “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and “The Prestige”), opens the vault and catches a glimpse of the tattoo on the back of Jem’s neck. She is taken hostage and terrorized before being set free. The FBI, led by tenacious Special Agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm from “Mad Men”), steps up efforts to track down and arrest this gang of thieves.
Since Claire is the only witness who can identify them to the authorities, Doug starts following her. They end up meeting in a coin-operated laundromat. A strong mutual attraction leads to a blossoming romance. Doug considers running away to Florida with Claire and starting a new life. Fergus “Fergie” Colm (Pete Postlethwaite), the local mob boss, who fronts as a neighborhood florist, forces Doug and his crew to pull off one last job involving concession money from a just-completed Red Sox homestand by threatening Claire’s life. Frawley uses Claire to bait the hook and finds a jealous Krista to be the weak link in the chain.
With only a modest budget, this sophomore effort from Affleck turns out to be a hit-and-miss affair. The well-choreographed action scenes are staged with flair and panache. The hair-raising car chases and explosive shootouts following the sensational heists are worth the price of admission. The creative costumes ranging from skull masks to nuns’ habits serving as disguises during the various stickups will be sought after for Halloween. The musical score effectively heightens the suspense.
The film bogs down with dialogue that is either mumbled with thick accents or muffled by poor microphones that fail to filter out background noises. Most of the conversations that can be understood are inconsequential and just add padding to a running time that seems longer than two hours.
The pulp fiction-like characters are underdeveloped and it’s hard to feel anything for people on the wrong side of the law. Doug and Jem’s two other partners in crime are barely even mentioned by name and act like stand-ins. You feel sorry for Claire being duped by Doug, even though his feelings appear to be genuine. Their relationship, built on lies and omissions, seems far-fetched and hard to believe after she remarks, “I’m sure I’d recognize their voices if I heard them again.” She then spends countless hours dating Doug and even briefly encounters Jem.
The overall acting is satisfactory. Affleck’s attention seems diverted on camera because of his directorial duties. Hall stands out, displaying real emotions. Renner brings out the toughness and spontaneous hair-trigger qualities of his role. Hamm never gets enough screen time with only one memorable monologue during an interrogation.
By shooting in Boston, the movie looks authentic. Affleck repeatedly throws in aerial shots of the downtown skyline and the Charles River rather than fade to black for segues. The climactic finale takes place in and around venerable Fenway Park.
Those left wanting more from this serious tale of brotherhood, love and the desperate need to escape a crooked life may want to read Hogan’s book, which won the 2005 Hammett Prize for excellence in crime writing.
Keith Cohen "The Movie Guy"