Review: Live By Night

Affleck’s big and glitzy gangster epic is fun, but needed room for more depth. In front of the camera, he’s the weakest link.

Pulling off a grand gangster epic is always going to be tricky, especially when reality is you’ll always be compared to be a certain trilogy’s first two parts. Out of the Batsuit and behind the camera on writer/director duties again, Ben Affleck’s fourth directorial effort Live By Night certainly has the scope and the production values, but its episodic nature might have been better served as a prestige TV series.

Adapted by Affleck from the Dennis Lehane novel, he also stars as Joe Coughlin, a man hardened by his time in the Great War who decides, on surviving the senseless horror of the French trenches, that he will no longer live his life by the rules. He takes this new mission so seriously that, on returning to a 1920s period paradise Boston, he begins robbing pool halls and banks with the aid of turncoat moll Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), thereby predictably setting him against Robert Glenister’s underwhelming Irish mob boss Albert White.

For this reason, overtures are made to recruit him to the opposing Italian gang led by Remo Girone’s Maso Pescatore, but Joe’s having none of that. He’s his own man, remember? Further complicating matters, his father’s on the other side of the law, with Brendan Gleeson squandered in a surly police chief role.

All of this would really be enough for an admittedly predictable but enjoyably staged film, complete with a cracking car chase. Instead, Joe jumps ship when things go south, following that compass direction down to Florida, taking Maso up on his offer after all and helping him commandeer the illicit prohibition rum trade, muscling in on the gig run by the dubiously Cuban Zoe Saldana’s Graciela. But White’s out for blood, as are the Ku Klux Klan, and the blind eye of Chris Cooper’s local police chief is opened when a scandal sees his aspiring actress daughter (Elle Fanning) turn to god in a big way. With the prohibition good times under threat, Joe and co hope to swivel to gambling by building a casino, but the good flock have other ideas.

It’s all quit entertaining and certainly easy on the eye, but the biggest weakness is Affleck himself. Despite a conversation with new lover Graciela about the cost of the cruelty required for his job, he never endows Joe with the necessary edge, and his script lets him off surprisingly lightly too. Between this middling turn and The Accountant’s laughably bad one, it might be best if he stick behind the camera from now on. Fat chance, given the Dark Knight’s calling.

There are no shades of morality here, just a jolly fun, action-packed gangster show that’s all admittedly bling surface, with the real stars of the show being  Jacqueline West’s costume designs. A brilliant final shout-out fizzles into a heavy-handed denouement.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords