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Review: Ben Affleck brings joy and skill to bear in the energetic genre exercise ‘The Accountant’

‘The Accountant’
Ben Affleck and Ana Kendrick in the movie “The Accountant.”
(Chuck Zlotnick / Warner Bros.)

The title character of “The Accountant” may not be the first investigator who falls somewhere on the autism spectrum — think Tony Shalhoub in TV’s “Monk” or the many incarnations of Sherlock Holmes for that matter — but he is one of the most enjoyable.

So much so that watching Ben Affleck’s Christian Wolff make numbers do his bidding as he grapples with a world he isn’t completely at home in, not to mention a rising body count, is so entertaining it’s hard not to wonder if Warner Bros. has a sequel in the works. Wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Written by Bill Dubuque and directed by Gavin O’Connor (the heartfelt “Miracle”), “The Accountant” is a nifty piece of genre entertainment, its wacky edge and genial tone despite that body count coming as something of a pleasant surprise in a year rife with lumbering, over-amped blockbusters.

A lot of people deserve credit for what’s on screen, starting with screenwriter Dubuque, who fleshed out a character who starts the film not as a hero but one of the bad guys.

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Ben Affleck stars in the trailer for “The Accountant.”

For Christian Wolff is not an ordinary number-cruncher. He does forensic accounting, investigating the source of fraud or embezzlement for what one character calls “some of the scariest people on the planet. Drug cartels. Arms brokers. Money launderers. Assassins.” People like that.

More than that, Wolff also happens to be a lean, mean fighting machine, a marksman capable of hitting a target a mile off, a master of the obscure Indonesian martial art pentjak silat and a street fighter capable of taking out an entire Mafia family with an ordinary steak knife.

What Wolff lacks, however, are garden variety people skills. Buttoned down to the max, with the pocket protector to prove it, he almost never smiles and is not strong on personal interaction. A high-functioning autistic individual, he is obsessed with order and making sure all tasks are completed.

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While this may sound-one dimensional, Affleck’s pleasure in playing the part and the skill he employs to safeguard Wolff’s integrity, to make sure he is treated not like a figure of fun but taken seriously as someone who simply interacts with the world in a different way, makes the difference. 

Director O’Connor is a filmmaker at home with genre, and though he occasionally overdoes things (“Warrior”)  he is unafraid of emotion and has expertly cast “Accountant” with skilled performers, including Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, Jeffrey Tambor and John Lithgow.

Just so we don’t get the wrong idea about Wolff, his criminal associates notwithstanding, he’s introduced at the offices of his ZZZ Accounting, next to Paul’s Laundromat in a Plainfield, Ill., strip mall, helping a poor farm family get the best deal out of the U.S. tax code.

We also flash back to Wolff’s childhood, to a school in New Hampshire that tries to tell his parents that their son is a remarkable young man. When his mother asks if he can have a normal life, she’s asked to “define normal.”

Next on the agenda is a trip to Washington, D.C., and the office of Ray King (Simmons), the head of the Treasury Department’s Crime Enforcement Division, who is determined to locate Wolff though at this point he doesn’t even know his name, let alone where to find him.

To do this, he twists the arm of Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), a young analyst in the division who has a wealth of modern technology at her disposal to track down someone who changes his name the way other people change socks and clearly does not want to be found.

Wolff, meanwhile, has decided to take a break from criminal bosses and goes to work for Lamar Blackburn (Lithgow), the founder of Living Robotics, a cutting-edge firm that manufacturers high-tech prosthetic limbs but has come across a problem with its books.

Dana Cummings, a junior accountant at the firm who discovered that the numbers don’t add up, is Wolff’s contact at Living Robotics. Artfully played by Kendrick, who has been handling roles like this since Jeff Blitz’s “Rocket Science,” Dana forms a tentative bond with Wolff that surprises them both.

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Complicated as all this may sound, it’s just the setup for a film that brings in a whole range of additional characters and plot strands, including enigmatic hitman Brax (Jon Bernthal) and imprisoned accountant Francis Silverberg (Tambor).

Not all these strands play out with equal facility, but the percentage is high for a genre exercise. That’s something a numbers guy like Christian Wolff would surely appreciate.

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MPAA rating: R, for strong violence and language.

Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes.

In general release.

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