Somewhere near the big climax of Ben Affleck’s new ‘20s and ‘30s-set crime drama Live By Night, a mafioso boss says to the movie’s star (and director), “You’re not a gangster. You’re a bandit in a suit.” And the line sums up the film somewhat. It never truly feels like the epic gangster movie it plainly wants to be. Mostly because Affleck is so determined to make Boston rum bootlegger and top Irish cop’s son Joseph Coughlin such a good guy. And we all know the best big screen gangsters have to have the preface ‘anti’ before the description ‘hero’. They need an edge.
So the picture isn’t quite the swaggering gangster film it could’ve been. It’s a bandit in a suit. But that’s not to say that you’ll leave the cinema feeling robbed after watching this adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s 2012 novel of the same name. There’s plenty to like about it. Just don’t sit down expecting The Godfather. It’s closer to a feature length episode of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, just with an ever so slightly prettier leading man. And there comes perhaps Live By Night’s biggest weakness… Ben Affleck.
Affleck – the man in the chair? He continues to impress as a director. This is his fourth outing behind the camera and, a few pacing problems aside, the man knows what he’s doing. It’s Affleck the actor that’s the issue here. With his Batman bulk wrapped up in boxy 1920’s suits, he looks enormous. No bad thing for a tough guy – even a ‘nice guy’ tough guy like the one he’s determined to present to us all here. He certainly looks the part (the costumes throughout are excellent, even the Dick Tracy-style ones…). But his clean-cut and laid-back approach doesn’t exactly ooze ‘rising star of organised crime’ as it does ‘handsome catalogue model’. The man’s just not very emotive, is he? Here his threats sound empty, his machine-gunning unconvincing; even his suave lady-killing scenes sound a little hollow.
Speaking of ladies, an almost unrecognisable Sienna Miller and Zoe Saldana (who looks more and more like Thandie Newton by the day) ably support in eye-catching, if slightly underwritten, roles. It’s the supporting cast that really stand out and rise this from dreary by-the-numbers gangster flick to a film worth catching. Miller and Saldana aside, look out for Brendan Gleason excellently playing the most Brendan Gleason-y character ever, rising star Elle Fanning (who is shockingly underused), an excellently weepy turn from Chris Cooper and a scene-stealing performance from Argo’s Chris Messina as Coughlin’s number two.
What else is there to enjoy about Live By Night? Well, the locations and sets are as stunning as they are convincing. When Coughlin starts up his operation down in Florida, the Tampa Bay setting, like the sun down there, really shines. The shoot-outs are frenetic and loud, if rather sporadic and presented almost reluctantly by Affleck who seems to want to present some kind of philosophical angle but can’t quite figure out what it is. Watch out for the mildly cringeworthy scene where he lectures a good ol’ boy banker about the pitfalls of colonialism, capitalism and racism too. Affleck’s personal politics clearly bleeding into proceedings and with little in the way of subtlety or shame.
Other frustrating elements include the few daft and quite obvious plot holes, a few too many lazy genre cliches and a fair amount of pretentious script waffle. Plus the plot (criminal moves Boston to Florida) is somewhat lacking in depth or breadth. A revenge plot thread involving his old Irish mob boss (played by Hustle’s Robert Glenister) disappears for half the movie, only reappearing seemingly just to add more bite to the final shootout.
Fans of the Lehane’s source material won’t be displeased with this effort, the tone is very similar to the book. The writer was an executive producer on the project and involved in the script. And it shows. His books are very cinematic in nature and lend themselves to adaptation nicely. Affleck’s directorial debut Gone Baby Gone was a Lehane and so were Shutter Island and Mystic River.
What is it about modern cinema’s inability to make a really good ol’ fashioned gangster movie? The industry blossomed with the likes of James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson’s contributions and there’s no shortage of pretenders. But whether it’s Public Enemies, Gangster Squad or now Live By Night, they just never really hit the target with their Tommy gun. Brian de Palma’s classic The Untouchables was probably the last prohibition-era gangster to find its target – albeit with a baseball bat – but that was thirty years ago now. Three decades on and Ben Affleck’s attempt is no Untouchables, but nor is it untouchable itself.
Have you seen Live By Night yet? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!