Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk…
When last we caught up with Ben Affleck the director, he was helming Argo, the Academy Award winner for Best Picture in 2012, which he also starred in. Affleck pulls not just double duty but triple duty this time around, writing, directing and playing the lead role in Live by Night, a crime drama based on the novel by Dennis Lehane.
WWI veteran Joe Coughlin (Affleck) is a two-bit stickup man in 1920s Boston that gets involved in a love affair with the mistress of local Irish crime boss Albert White. When Maso Pescatore, leader of the Italian Mafia, finds out, he tries to leverage the info to get Joe to kill White. Joe refuses and instead decides to flee with Emma (Sienna Miller).
To facilitate this, Coughlin and his cronies stick up a bank with disastrous results as cops are killed in the pursuit. White also learns of the affair and intercepts Joe on his way to rendezvous with Emma, beating him nearly to death, before police, led by Captain Thomas Coughlin (Brendan Gleeson), arrive to arrest Joe, who is told Emma was killed.
After serving a prison sentence, Joe reconnects with Pescatore in an effort to exact revenge on White, who’s now living in Tampa. Coughlin heads down there to run rum operations for Pescatore, meeting a beautiful Cuban woman, Graciela (Zoe Saldana). Each time Joe grows his racket he gets closer to taking out White, but he’ll need to navigate an increasingly dense set of distractions to do it.
We’ve seen plenty of prohibition-era films over the years, but Affleck manages to weave in different elements with unique locations and obstacles, taking things out of the big cities and focusing on a specific section of Tampa. There’s some complexity at work with the Klan’s influence, religious pressures and the plight of Cuban refugees all worked in. This isn’t standard gangster fare, even if the trailers would make you believe otherwise.
Action is a key element for a crime drama of this nature, and although Live by Night can be a little stingy in doling them out, there is a pair of standout sequences. The post-robbery car chase is really well done and something we haven’t really seen in movies set in this era. The final showdown is a tightly paced gun fight that makes you wish there’d been more of it.
It’s a talented cast with a number of strong performances, particularly in the supporting roles. Gleeson does well in a familiar role, playing a world weary Boston police captain, and Chris Messina stands out as Affleck’s right-hand man. Chris Cooper and Elle Fanning deliver as well as the local lawman and his “born again” daughter.
Although we enjoyed some of the unique subplots, the big picture story covers a lot of familiar themes and tropes of the genre. In fact, it feels packed to the gills with them when you consider all of those more interesting elements we already mentioned. Even at more than two hours, the movie still could’ve benefitted from a more streamlined focus on fewer plot points.
As mentioned, Live by Night doesn’t dole out as much action as you’d expect, especially based on the trailers that make it seem like the next coming of The Untouchables. There’s a very pronounced shift when the scene moves from Boston to Tampa, and White, the man Joe is ostensibly down there to kill, pretty much disappears from a huge chunk of the film (and takes a lot of the action with him).
THE BONUS FEATURES
Fifteen minutes of deleted scenes is the best piece of added content, though a rather lengthy alternative opening (here, Affleck and Miller meet during the robbery rather than knowing each other already) and a talk between Affleck and his estranged brother make up most of it. Character profiles, an introduction to the author and a breakdown of the car chase account for the rest.
Live by Night isn’t a bad movie, but it tries to do too many things and ends up feeling unfocused. Given the quality of Affleck’s directorial history this ends up being at least a mild disappointment.