Ben Affleck’s latest directing foray starts as a typical bank robbery film. It’s “Ocean’s Eleven” with a Boston accent, or maybe “Point Break” in the slums just outside of Fenway Park. However, as the film progresses it becomes something different. It slowly changes into an existential prison escape film that resembles “Shawshank Redemption” more than any of the classic heist films critics have been comparing it to. At first it’s a bit disappointing that it’s not just an adrenaline-fueled game of cops and robbers, but what it becomes is still an engaging and interesting hybrid. In this theoretical prison escape film, the bank robbery capitol of the world, Charlestown, acts as the prison. Charlestown is a prison without bars, cement or security guards. Instead this prison keeps its inhabitants locked in with crime, drugs and poverty. The prisoner trying to escape is named Doug McKay and is played convincingly by Ben Affleck. Doug’s past choices and present occupation (bank robber) are his chains, but if he can break free there might actually be a future for him.

Doug’s struggle isn’t enough to support the entire film, and that’s where the supporting cast comes in. Jeremy Renner, hot off his success in “The Hurt Locker,” gets a meaty role as the best friend, James. He’s a wild card who’s accepted the fact that leaving Charlestown isn’t an option. He gives the strongest performance of the film. It’s not quite Oscar-worthy, but it’s memorable nonetheless. Blake Lively plays Krista, Doug’s on-and-off girlfriend with a daughter and Oxycontin addiction who’s not only accepted Charlestown, but embraced it. She succeeds in this film simply because you actually forget it’s her. By the final act of the film you’ve forgotten about the Gossip Girl and all you can see is another one of Charlestown’s victims. Jon Hamm, famous for playing everyone’s favorite adman on the AMC series Mad Men, plays the cop hunting Doug down. It’s fun to watch him on the big screen, but his performance is basically a few different variations of “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore!” Rebecca Hall plays the manager at the first bank Doug robs, who becomes traumatized after briefly being taken hostage, yet soon becomes his (gasp) new secret love interest. Hall holds up her reputation as being one of the most consistent young actresses in the business. Both Hall and Hamm give acceptable performances but neither is given enough time to flesh out their characters.

What’s interesting about the moral struggle of Doug is that it really isn’t much different from the film that started Affleck’s career; “Good Will Hunting.” It’s about rising out of your environment and trying to find something better. Doug’s no genius but he is a pretty good bank robber. He uses his skills and cheats the system to break free, but also hurts people trying to get out. Of course, it’s impossible to avoid hurting people when trying to break free from a system that is broken to begin with. This is where a lot of crime films start to lose their footing. Film and crime have had a historically difficult relationship. When done right, it can resonate with American audiences more than almost any other subject. When done wrong, it can come off as irresponsible or just plain dumb. Affleck’s new film isn’t destined for greatness, but it does successfully walk the tightrope between this demanding relationship and for that Affleck deserves a new level of respect.

Some laughed when Affleck received a writing credit for “Good Will Hunting.” Okay Ben, whatever you say. Even more laughed when his career started going downhill with critical bombs like “Gigli” and “Surviving Christmas.” However, when “Gone Baby Gone” came out, he shut a lot of people up. With the addition of “The Town” to his resume, it will be hard for anyone to deny that Mr. Affleck is a talented filmmaker. His unique and stylized form of storytelling is reminiscent of other gifted actor/directors like Clint Eastwood or Sean Penn, and it wouldn’t be surprising if his career followed a similar and successful path in the years to come.

3.5 out of 5 stars