UK Release Date: 13th January 2017
Runtime: 129 minutes
Director: Ben Affleck
Writer: Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, Sienna Miller, Chris Messina, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Robert Glenister, Remo Girone
Synopsis: A small-time crook becomes embroiled in a bitter gang war between two rival crime bosses and finds himself in control of a rum empire in Florida, butting heads with local cops and the KKK.
No one makes more acting work than Ben Affleck than Ben Affleck does. His latest rather indulgent work is an adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s crime thriller Live By Night, which is essentially a hybrid of a series of considerably better gangster movies like Goodfellas and Scarface. It’s a vanity project from Affleck that basically allows him to wear a series of smart suits, fire guns and share sex scenes with remarkably attractive women. If only it were even half as entertaining for the audience.
Joe Coughlin (Affleck) is a WW1 veteran and the son of a Boston police chief (Brendan Gleeson) committing small-time crimes around the city to keep himself afloat. He is thrown reluctantly into the world of organised crime when he falls in love with Emma (Sienna Miller), girlfriend of feared mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister). White’s rival Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) finds out about the affair and blackmails Joe, forcing him to take pal Dion (Chris Messina) down to Florida to run Pescatore’s rum empire. Down there, Joe connects with Sheriff Figgis (Chris Cooper) and Graciela (Zoe Saldana) – the sister of a local businessman.
Live By Night isn’t necessarily a bad movie, but it is one that is endlessly derivative. Almost every moment of the film, narratively and visually, is simply a reminder of another, better movie. It’s an indulgent piece of work that puts Affleck’s bland protagonist front and centre in almost every scene. It’s a charisma-free performance to headline a charisma-free film, which never finds enough of a story to make up for its star’s shortcomings.
Affleck, to his credit, has assembled and corralled and impressive supporting cast for his film. Robert Glenister is tremendous as the ruthless Irish mobster and Chris Cooper brings a surprising amount of depth to all of his scenes as the emotionally troubled Sheriff of the small Florida town where Affleck sets up base camp for his Italian paymaster’s rum operation. The real revelation though is Elle Fanning, who is spellbinding in a brief turn as a troubled young woman who turns preacher when her big Hollywood dreams go awry. Fanning is a real star of the future and her work in Live By Night showcases an impressive ability to shine even in a relatively minor film.
The film also boasts some genuinely shocking scenes of violence. An early montage of bloody gang warfare on the streets of Boston is wince-inducing in its brutality and there are sequences involving a particularly violent Ku Klux Klan leader that pack a real punch. These bright spots, however, are spread far too thinly in favour of dozens of scenes in which Affleck pours champagne and swaggers around with a shit-eating grin on his face. A charismatic actor can make that sort of character compellingly detestable, but Affleck isn’t a strong enough presence to manage it.
Live By Night is considerably more than two hours long and it’s possible to feel every moment as they drag on by. None of the positives about the film are enough to make up for the fact that it’s little more than a straightforward vanity project for its star, who is a long way from the heights of Argo, which rightly won Oscars. That film felt like the culmination of a career, whereas Live By Night is a sidestep into masculine fantasy that only fulfills that fantasy for the man whose name and face is all over the poster.
Pop or Poop?
Ben Affleck is at the centre of everything in Live By Night and therefore he’s at the centre of everything it does wrong. There are moments of intriguing gangster thrills here, but it never escapes the shadow of its genre predecessors and serves as little more than an excuse for its creative mind to have a good time and earn a huge amount of money in the process.
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