As a huge fan of Ben Affleck, no matter what hat he has donned for a picture, as writer, director and actor he has impressed me. Films like Gone Girl Gone, The Town and Argo have distinguished himself as perfectly able to do all three and even produce on top of everything else. Live By Night is his latest film in which Affleck has written, directed, starred and produced, telling the story of a disillusioned World War I vet, Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) who has returned home from the war and entered a life of crime. Robbing banks primarily, he is strictly small-time. He does not want to be a gangster who is locked into a single “family”. He wants to be free. He hooks up with the mistress of the local mobster, which does not end well for either of them.
Arrested for a bank robbery gone horribly wrong, Joe ends up doing a three year stretch in prison. He would have been executed for the deaths of three police officers of his robbery-gone-bad, were it not for his father, Thomas Coughlin (Brendan Gleeson), the local police chief. Joe maintains he never killed any of the officers so his father makes the prosecutor a deal. When released, Joe picks up his old tricks but this time, plans for revenge against the mob that sold him out. Unfortunately, he must make a deal with the opposing mob and work for them to accomplish his revenge. If this sounds involved, it is. Too involved. The film switches locales from Boston to Tampa, all during the days of Prohibition. When in Tampa, Joe schmoozes the locals which consist of Cubans, evangelists, the KKK, other small time, but problematic gangs and the local chief of police named Figgis (Chris Cooper).
All of this is crammed into an overly long and somewhat dull exercise in ambitious filmmaking. Affleck has written the script based on Dennis Lehane’s novel and there is a lot going on and most of it is pretty routine material. There is not much that happens that we have not seen done better in other gangster films. Live By Night made me want to watch Warren Beatty’s Bugsy which also covers some familiar territory but does it with style, grace and eloquence. Like Bugsy, Live By Night does have tremendous production values from the sets, to the cars and wardrobe Live By Night is beautiful to look at. The cinematography by Robert Richardson is sumptuous, especially when the film travels to Tampa. You can practically taste the salt air and feel the breeze of the palm trees.
After a promising first act, Live By Night comes almost to a screeching halt when Joe and his henchman Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina) go to Tampa to set up shop. Their plans are to start running Rum with the Cubans, build a huge casino to make up for the lost revenue when Prohibition is gone and basically be a world unto itself. But the local chief’s daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning) is an outspoken critic of the operations and takes to a local church tent to voice her objections. So much time is spent on Joe trying to reason with her, but I could not understand why. She is one person preaching from a tent. I don’t think any crime family is going to waste one second with her, when her police-chief father has given the okay, already. Her character and the logic for her character is pointless.
There are a couple of scenes in which Joe talks to the Cubans about prices for their illegal rum but nothing interesting is discussed or hinted at. It exists solely so that we can see Joe fall in love with a Cuban girl named Graciela (Zoe Saldana). These two have zero chemistry and their relationship only exists to fill time. Otherwise, I could not have cared less. The cast is terrific but there are so many excess characters that Live By Night suffocates. The action is fun, but mostly is just because the filmmakers seem obligated to throw it in. The whole second act is meeting after meeting with not much happening and predictable story telling abounds.
If I were Ben, I would have cut back on his duties for Live By Night. It has not been an issue in the past, but for this film, it is too much. The script needed another rewrite and the pacing is sluggish. He could have directed or written the script and still starred, but he needed to give either the direction or the writing to someone else. Why not get the novel’s author Dennis Lehane to pen the script? He is more than capable to do that. But in the end, Live By Night is a hamfisted attempt to rekindle the gangster era films and although it is nice to look at, Live By Night is largely ineffective and boring. Not a total waste of time, but disappointing to say the least. Spend your time watching Warren Beatty’s classic, Bugsy, instead.
Live By Night – ** 1/2 out of five
Live By Night – Rated R for gore, violence, gangland executions, language and sexual situations.
Live By Night – Run Time is 128 minutes
If you are still interested, Live By Night is now playing in theaters. Check your local listings for times and locations.