Actors that go into directing normally need a few movies before they discover their style, hit their stride, and become good filmmakers.  Some guys are lucky on their first (Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves) or second try (Mel Gibson's Braveheart) and go all the way to win the Academy Award for Best Director and Best Picture, but most season and develop over time.  Clint Eastwood, arguably the best actor/director working today or ever, made 16 films before Unforgiven brought him an Oscar (which he's repeated since then with Million Dollar Baby).  Ron Howard needed 17 before A Beautiful Mind hit in 2001.  Woody Allen is still waiting, 43 movies later.

Lead actors and actresses grabbing a little creative control and take a shot at directing is nothing new, but an increasing trend in the industry.  They do it on television all the time (for example, Tom Welling has directed five episodes of Smallville over the years), but movies are a little more challenging.  Tom Hanks (That Thing You Do!) tried it once, and Robert DeNiro did twice (A Bronx Tale and The Good Shepherd).  Lately, Denzel Washington (Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters) is off to a good start, as is George Clooney (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night and Good Luck, and Leatherheads).

Many do it, but Ben Affleck?!  The "Bennifer" punchline of Gigli that won an Oscar co-writing Good Will Hunting with Matt Damon and has taken the opposite career arch to his?  Believe it or not, the new heist thriller, The Town, is his second directorial effort.  You would never know it from the marketing and would have to look at the credits on the poster or DVD case, but his 2007 directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, the Boston kidnapping drama from the writer of Mystic River and Shutter Island starring his brother Casey, Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris, and Amy Ryan, is a 94% stud on Rotten Tomatoes.  Beginner's luck?  Nope!

Ben Affleck's The Town is better than Gone Baby Gone, even with Affleck himself pulling double duty as actor/director and having the most twist-revealing trailer) this side of What Lies Beneath or Cast Away.  The Town achieves to be as dangerous, interesting, and dramatic as the two movies it's being hyped by its studio to be compared to: Heat and The Departed. While it's not as epic and well-acted as Heat and nowhere near as visceral as The Departed, The Town can hold it's own in the crime thriller department.

The movie takes place in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston, known for having the largest percentage of bank and armored truck robbers in any one area in the world.  Affleck plays Doug MacRay, a former local hockey prospect who washed out and fell into the family business of crime, just as his father (the always reliable and fellow Academy Award winner Chris Cooper) did.  He and his old friend Jem Coughlin (the outstanding Jeremy Renner, the lead from last year's Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker) lead a team of four that specialize in precision-timed bank and truck heists.

The timing gets tight on opening heist of the movie and the team has to take a hostage for insurance.  That hostage is Claire Keesey, played by Rebecca Hall of The Prestige. Throughout her capture, it's the cool-headed Doug that keeps the hot-headed Jem from doing something drastic.  After the job, just to make sure that she can't make their team to the feds, led by the determined Special Agent Adam Frawley (Mad Men's John Hamm, working the tough guy lines), MacRay begins to tail and soon interact with the unknowing Claire after her ordeal.  Soon, he falls for her, the one woman who can turn them in, and things begin to get more and more complicated, not just in life, but also for the jobs, the longer Doug keeps his true identity from Claire.

The Town successfully balances the dramatic irony of Doug's double-life with wonderfully suspenseful heist and chase scenes.  Affleck is a natural Boston native, but it's California boy Renner who's becomes the chameleon here.  While Hall may have played the anguished girlfriend part better and for more drama inThe Prestige, she's still great to watch.   Veteran cinematographer Robert Elswitt (Salt, Syrianna, andThere Will Be Blood) never has a shot out of place whether it's a high shot from above, a close shot showing great tension, or seemingly bumper-clad cameras on car chases.  If there's any CGI, you won't be able to tell.  The editing keeps things pretty tame compared to the usual action movie trend of the shaky handheld with quick cuts, which is a big plus.

Those two comparisons of Heat and The Departed from before are fair and appropriate. The Town has a great pursuer in Hamm that is shades of Pacino and the shootouts and chases are right there with Heat.  Like The Departed, Boston and the Irish underworld is front and center.  You really can't tell what gets shot in a studio and what was on location because everything looks like it's right there on the streets.  I can't even begin to gush, nor can I give away, where in Boston the "one-last-job" big score heist turns out to be. 

All of that grit gives The Town a very visceral and real look.  With the Academy Award for Best Picture expanded to ten nominees, don't be surprised to see The Town make the cut.  Ben Affleck, as a director, is the real deal.  Don't be surprised either if he gets his name called next to the likes of David Fincher (The Social Network) and Christopher Nolan (Inception) for a Best Director nomination.  You'll be hearing from him again real soon.

LESSON #1: THERE'S NO SUCH THING AS "ONE LAST JOB" OR "ONE LAST SCORE"-- We see this lesson in Inception and in every other good heist movie.  While a great plot device, the idea is a myth because you can't shake the rush of the job.  You can't shake the draw of the money.  At the same time, it's too hard to change who you have become if you are a lifetime criminal.  Very few pull off the career and lifestyle change without residual effects.  Oh, and there's the wanted fugitive part too...

LESSON #2: DON'T S*#T WHERE YOU EAT (OR A CLEANER VERSION OF THE SAME IDEA)-- You're kind of asking to get pinched when you commit crimes in the same town and neighborhood you live in.  The local people know you, you'll always have a reputation, or you'll get the usual "how can you afford this?" from your friends and neighbors.  You'll also get to the point, like in The Departed with Jack Nicholson, where everyone in town knows who the bad guys are, including the feds.  Branch out.  Drive to Connecticut to rob a bank.

LESSON #3: LIVE BY A LIE AND YOU BECOME A LIE--  In The Town, you have to question how Doug can really fall for Claire and still lead the life he does.  It's compelling, no doubt about it.  However, you can mean well all you want, but if your relationship is based on or was founded by a lie, it's never going to work.  Be upfront and honest with the ones you love, even if it makes you look bad or you risk losing that great relationship.  Honesty is the best policy.  Either that, or someone needs to tell Doug that there are more fish in the sea.