Warner Bros. Pictures
Ben Affleck has, more or less, redeemed himself in the public eye for his turn in the directing chair. What started with “Gone Baby Gone,” a movie that showed he had the passion, then there was “The Town,” a brilliant crime caper and finally “Argo,” which is the home-run of his career. Not because of all the Oscar accolades, but because of how timely it was. Looking at that trifecta of hit after hit, I couldn’t have been the only one chomping at the bit for his next film. Which is his love letter to gangster-noir style cinema called “Live By Night.” The movie is pulpy, effective, and sharply written by Affleck himself in the leading role playing the hustler Joe Coughlin, but he is more of an outlaw than a hustler. Though he isn’t such a bad guy all the time, he falls for the babes as quickly as they let him, specifically dangerous feminine fattal's like Emma (Sienna Miller - sporting a thick Irish accent) a dame which becomes his motivation to quit being a crook all together.
Coughlin has one more job, and is ready to call it quits, only everything that can go wrong does.When a botched robbery lands him in a questionable spot, there is a chance for him to punch a one-way ticket from Boston to Tampa where the rum-running triades have many opportunities waiting. One that has encounters with a crooked Sheriff (Chris Cooper) his ambitious Hollywood bound daughter who turns evangelist (Elle Fanning), a wealthy cuban empire headed by a pair of siblings (Zoe Saldana and Miguel), and the grandmaster of the KKK (Matthew Meher - using his lisp to turn in a devilish performance).
If there is a reason that all of this feels familiar, that’s because it does.What makes “Live By Night” good is the story plays the thin narrative so safely, it fits as easily as the tommy guns the gangsters use when shooting up speakeasies. Yet, that’s probably what holds the movie back from the predestined Affleck standards, there isn’t one definitive moment that stands out as jaw dropping, partially because Coughlin is such a troubled character. On one hand we are supposed to sympathize with him, and the other he is a sleazy killer. Some movies have the luxury of making it easy for us to relate to a bad guy. Here, the tonal imbalance is very obvious.
“Live By Night,” if in the hands of another director, might have suffered from oversaturation. Granted, the death count piles as high as any other gangster shoot-em up flick, but I wouldn’t expect anything different. The final shoot-out is shot with such flare and style that it’s gripping, fun, and engrossing. Even though Affleck may have taken a step back in quality, the movie is still great popcorn entertainment, fueled with even better performances. And with Affleck set to helm the next Batman movie, let’s hope the ambition continues. B