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Affleck (the writer) has still got it.

GONE BABY GONE
  • GONE BABY GONE

Whether because of bad advice, bad personal choices, or just plan bad luck, nobody has hit the skids harder in recent years than Ben Affleck. After winning a screenwriting Oscar for “Good Will Hunting” and pole-vaulting to the A-List almost over night, ol' Ben has been hip-deep in the suck ever since, cranking out one stinker after another. The guy probably carries his Academy Award around in a duffel bag so he can show it to people on the street who accost him over “Daredevil.” “See? See?” he'll say, brandishing his statuette menacingly. “That's my name right there. I really won this.”

That's sad, because given the choice between the binary stars of “Hunting” — Affleck and co-writer and co-star Matt Damon — I really wanted to see Affleck make it. Call me crazy, but Affleck seems a lot more real than frat-boyish Damon, more genuine. Not a whole lot more, but some. Call Affleck Kid Rock to Damon's Vanilla Ice.

For fans of Affleck, the good news is that he's back. Not as an actor, but as a writer and director. Though this reviewer didn't have a lot of hope for Affleck's directorial debut, “Gone Baby Gone” — he also co-wrote the script, based on a novel by “Mystic River” scribe Dennis LeHane — the truth is it's a really interesting flick. Often grittily beautiful, infused with the same deep and abiding love for white-trash Boston that helped make “Good Will Hunting” such a joy, “Gone” is a film that will have you second-guessing the characters' moral choices (and what you might have done in a similar situation) long after the lights come up.

Affleck's kid brother Casey stars as Patrick Kenzie, a young private detective who — along with his girlfriend Angie Gennero (Michelle Monaghan) — specializes in tracking down missing persons on the mean streets of Beantown. Soon, Kenzie and Gennero are hired by Beatrice McCready (Amy Madigan), the aunt of a 4-year-old girl who was taken from her bed in the middle of the night. The job drops them in the middle of a pressure cooker, with the media swarming over the latest cute-white-girl-goes-missing story outside. Inside, things are no better, with Kenzie butting heads with a special child abduction unit of the Boston Police, headed by Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) and Detective Remy Bressant (Ed Harris), and the child's coked-out loser of a mother (Amy Ryan). While we can't tell you much more than that without giving too much away, suffice it to say that the deeper Kenzie gets into the case, following leads provided by friends he made growing up on the streets, the more complicated it gets — both morally and legally.

Though the eventual plot revealed in “Baby” is a little far-fetched, and the film could have easily been shortened by 30 minutes without losing much, it's also a film that feels full — loaded with characters as realized and nuanced as those found in any novel. In a large measure, that's due to Affleck's careful writing and direction, and his intimate, love/hate relationship with Boston. As with “Hunting,” he's able to take you there — not just as a tourist, but as a townie.

In short, I hope that Affleck will take some time off from in front of the camera to do more work behind it. He's really got an eye for finding beauty in the gutter. While “Gone” probably ain't going to win his lonely statuette a companion, it's proof that the boy's still got it, and maybe a glimmer of hope for what we might expect of him in the future.

David Koon

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