There’s an episode in Chuck Hogan’s Prince of Thieves
that I was sure Ben Affleck was going to include in his adaptation of the novel. Doug MacRay and his crew of Charlestown armed robbers plan to knock over the Braintree 10 Cinema. To disguise themselves, they use a make-up kit one of them stole from a Hollywood production shooting on location in Boston. In the book, this seems the epitome of postmodern, self-reflexive irony.
Affleck, who plays MacRay in his film, passed on that scene, replacing it with a heist in the North End that involves a shoot-out and a car chase. So much for subtext, but I can’t argue with the result: the sequence rivals the classic scenes in Bullitt and The French Connection, and it makes you wonder why no one’s shot something like that in this labyrinthine neighborhood before. Neither is this tour-de-force an exception. Affleck combines visceral excitement, bracing authenticity, and an ambiance of malice and dread to make what might be the best movie set in Boston since The Friends of Eddie Coyle — and that includes his own Gone Baby Gone.
Yet one of the least convincing elements in Affleck’s re-creation of the Boston criminal demi-monde is his own erratic accent. Perhaps that reflects his character’s ambivalence about being a Townie knucklehead. Doug is a gentleman, and he seems a little embarrassed by the crudities of his profession and the feral nature of his background. In the film’s opening robbery of a Harvard Square bank, he’s the voice of reason, reassuring Claire (Rebecca Hall), a pretty manager, when she fumbles with the combination to the safe. His calm doesn’t really compensate for the thugs’ brutality, however, or the bursts from their assault weapons, or the death masks covering their faces. And his courtesy doesn’t cover up the behavior of Jem (Jeremy Renner, whose accent is perfect), his childhood friend, who always goes a little too far — in this case staving in some guy’s head with the butt of his AK-47 and taking Claire hostage.
They let Claire go, but when they learn that she lives right down the street in a gentrified part of Charlestown, Doug volunteers to find out what she might have blurted to FBI agent Frawley (Jon Hamm in a limited role that might disappoint fans of Mad Men). Doug and Claire meet cute in a laundromat, exchange sob stories and phone numbers, begin an awkward romance, and arouse Jem’s suspicion and jealousy. Maybe this is how guys meet girls in certain parts of Charlestown.