Adapted from Dennis Lehane’s 2012 novel of the same name, this is the Ben Affleck show. He writes, directs and stars which is a problem straight away if like me, you don’t really think too much of him. ‘Gone Girl’ was a brilliant film, and although I’m ashamed to say I haven’t seen it, ‘Argo’ was a big hit as well. However, he plays pretty much every role in the same old dark and grumbly way and he doesn’t even do that very well.
‘Live By Night’ is the sixth film he has directed, and the fourth feature length (two were shorts). To give him credit, it’s actually a well directed film and he clearly has an eye for the right shots and is a talent behind the camera (maybe even more so than in front of it). His direction on ‘Argo’ won him the Best Director award at the 2013 Oscar’s and BAFTA’s.
The story itself is very interesting but of course most of the credit there has to go to Dennis Lehane who originally wrote it. I’d like to read the book because I’m sure the story would have been told in a much better way than it has come across on the big screen. I’d hope for Ben Affleck’s sake that he has been true to the source material because otherwise it has been very poorly adapted with several key elements either glossed over or ignored completely.
Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, a World War I veteran who now lives in Boston and spends his time robbing banks and running from the law. Set in the late 1920s during the Prohibition Era, Albert White (Hustle’s Robert Glenister) is an Irish mob leader engaged in a bloody turf war with Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), leader of the Italian mob. Both are fighting for control of the speakeasy’s (bars illegally selling alcohol).
When Joe starts having an affair with Albert White’s girlfriend Emma (Sienna Miller), trouble starts to brew if you’ll pardon the pun. Inevitably, Albert finds out and Joe only escapes death by spending three years behind bars. Upon release, he offers his services to Maso Pescatore with revenge in his sights. He is sent to the immigrant rich Ybor City in Florida and told to wrestle away control of the rum trade from Albert White’s mob. He partners up with old friend and businessman Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina), and pretty much straight away meets a girl (Zoe Saldana).
Narration isn’t usually a problem, and it wasn’t in this film either when it was used to set the scene at the beginning. It became a problem though later on when it was used to explain plot points or as an easy way to move the story on. He is sent to Florida to gain control of the rum trade from Albert White’s men, so why aren’t we shown this? I almost couldn’t believe my eyes when that entire process was skipped and instead we just heard Joe Coughlin tell us that he had succeeded. Simply lazy.
For a gangster film, there is very little action and that was massively disappointing. Aside from a car chase at the start and a shoot out at the end, there is nothing in the way of pulse racing action. Surely that should be at the heart of a gangster film. We are instead given a lot of repetitive scenes whereby Joe and Dion have a sit-down chat with various people, only one ending in violence.
My interest peaked in the opening ten minutes when Brendan Gleeson showed up as Joe’s police chief father. With such a sublime actor in the mix, at least I could look forward to appreciating another scene-stealing performance from him. As it happens, no I couldn’t because within five minutes of him appearing, he was gone again. Disgusting!
Joe’s plans change when it becomes clear that Prohibition will end soon. His priority turns to opening a huge, new casino on the beach front. Ultimately, the film seemed very unsure about what it wanted to be and therefore never committed to anything. Instead, it flitted around various storylines but didn’t give any of them the time or focus they needed to gain traction and more importantly, the audiences interest.
Albert White, supposedly the main villain, was nowhere to be seen for most of the film and so how is the audience supposed to grow fearful of him? When he reappears just in time for the big finish, it’s a bit like: “Oh yeah, I forgot he was the bad guy in all of this.” The matter isn’t helped by the presence of two characters who get in Joe’s way and take attention away from Albert White.
The first is Loretta Figgis (Elle Fanning), the daughter of Chief Figgis (Chris Cooper), Ybor City Sheriff. She starts preaching to crowds about God and that everyone must boycott the proposed casino because it is sinful to gamble.
The second is Ku Klux Klan member, RD Pruitt played by Matthew Maher. He demands a large cut of the profits and wreaks havoc on Joe’s speakeasy’s until he gets it. Both are interesting, convincing characters but it just unnecessarily complicates what should be a simple story.
Once you add into that Zoe Saldana’s love interest Graciela, it becomes one layer too many. Aside from Affleck’s predictable portrayal of Joe Coughlin, the acting was of a good standard. Robert Glenister and Remo Girone were fantastic mob bosses, and Matthew Maher brought a chilling, crazed personality trait to the unhinged RD Pruitt. Sienna Miller nailed the Irish accent, but other than that there was no real wow factor to her turn as Emma Gould.
The final act was entertaining with the re-entry of Albert White and a good ol’ classic shoot-out but generally, if you’re a fan of gangster films then this isn’t going to do much for you with the sinful lack of action the main sore point.
Ben, leave these sorts of films to the big boys please.
Verdict – 4.5/10