Lavish but somewhat lacklustre gangster flick helmed by and starring Ben Affleck
After his Oscar-winning Argo Ben Affleck is back in the director's seat for his fourth behind-camera outing, Live by Night. A lush period gangster movie, it reunites the actor-writer-director with author Dennis Lehane, the source of his credible directorial debut Gone Baby Gone. But while that was genuinely hardboiled, this never quite gets the temperature right.
Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, a WWI veteran and son of a police captain (Brendan Gleeson) who winds up working for one mobster to plot the downfall of another following the death of his beloved (Sienna Miller). After a plot-thick opening in Boston, Joe heads to Ybor City, Florida, to run a bootlegging operation – all with a view to avenging his lover's demise.
Joe teams up with his trusty pal Dion (Chris Messina), while obstacles to their Prohibition domination include the Ku Klux Klan and Chris Cooper's cop, whose naïve daughter (Elle Fanning) gets caught up in the power games. Zoe Saldana also appears as Joe's second squeeze – a Cuban beauty joining forces with him in the smuggling and distribution of illicit liquor.
As you might expect, the performances from the high-calibre cast are quality, with Fanning's born-again starlet and Cooper's religious zealot leaving the most vivid impression. Yet Affleck would've been wiser to cast someone else in the lead; rather too clean-cut to play the morally muddled Coughlin, he never really gets under the skin of a man who kills but professes not to be a gangster.
Affleck takes solo writing credit on the film and gives more thought to action than emotions; his character's vengeful subplot is rather lost in the frequent bouts of bullet-fire and flying fists. Design-wise, Live by Night benefits from pleasing contrasts – the greys of Boston versus blues of Florida – but sumptuous visuals can't hide the flaws of a film that's a far cry from a gangster classic.
General release from Fri 13 Jan.