Review in a Hurry: In his second film as a director, Ben Affleck returns to the crime-ridden streets of working-class Boston that made Gone Baby Gone so memorable. This time he heads to Charlestown, a neighborhood that's supposedly home to more bank robbers than anywhere else. As an auteur, Affleck's style is definitely worth watching, but his acting is still a bore, and he's fallen into the trap of putting himself in the lead.
The Bigger Picture: Actors who become directors often make the same, self-indulgent mistake of falling in love with their own performance so much that they can't see their way to cutting any of it down in the editing room, with Kevin Costner's The Postman being only the most egregious example.
Affleck avoided that pothole in his directorial debut by having his more-compelling brother Casey in the lead, but for round two, it seems he couldn't resist the chance to show off a bit more.
Affleck casts himself as Doug MacRay, retired hockey player and ringleader of a highly skilled gang of bank robbers that also includes his longtime childhood friend James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner), an ex-con with a righteously violent streak that occasionally gets the gang into trouble.
Following the first heist we watch, Doug takes an attractive hostage, an assistant bank manager named Claire (Vicky Cristina Barcelona's Rebecca Hall), whom he then decides to tail afterward in order to make sure she doesn't know anything.
Invariably—and a bit unbelievably—he falls for her, and in doing so endangers the gang just as much as James' propensity for bashing heads in. None of which is a good thing, considering that the feds on their tracks are led by Jon Hamm and the Man in Black from Lost. And on the criminal end of the spectrum, Pete Postlethwaite is threatening the boys with castration if they don't do another job for him.
The heist scenes are kinetic, tightly directed pieces of work, and the way Charlestown itself becomes a fully realized character is testament to the fact that Affleck has been paying good attention over the years to the best of directors. If only he realized his limitations with the thespian skills—the movie grinds to a boring halt every time Doug has to engage in a long, dramatic dialogue scene with another character, usually in a manner that fails to move the plot forward but might, in an alternate universe, show off the acting talents of the lead.
The smart thing to do would have been to have Renner and Affleck switch roles. On the rare occasions that he's actually done character work rather than a lead (think Mallrats), Affleck has been liberated from the trap that his handsome looks have led him down. Renner as protagonist got an Oscar nomination last year. The director should have done the math.
The 180—a Second Opinion: The little details in scenes are often note-perfect, from one doomed character's final sip of a discarded soda to the sight gag that caps a frenetic set piece involving nun costumes.