Film review: Ben Affleck stumbles in disappointing gangster drama Live By Night

Ben Affleck seemed to have all the right ingredients for his self-adapted script: fedoras, tommy guns, corruption and prohibition, providing plenty of scope for ethical questions of race, faith and vice aplenty.

Ben Affeck in Live By Night. Claire Folger / Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP
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Live by Night

Director: Ben Affleck

Starring: Ben Affleck, Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson

Three stars

The days when gangster movies were the Hollywood gold standard have long gone, the excesses and successes of Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Brian De Palma little more than a misty memory.

The past decade's most notable disappointments – American Gangster (2007), Public Enemies (2009), Gangster Squad (2013), all of which were underwhelming, forgettable affairs – have collectively tested the public's patience for morally-wrought mob dramas.

No one was asking Ben Affleck to add to the body count of big-screen duds. Yet after the phenomenal success of his last directional outing – Best Picture Oscar-winner Argo – Affleck was in the enviable position of being able to make any movie he wanted.

And for his fourth stint in the chair, he chose Live by Night (in UAE cinemas from February 2), a mob movie steeped in the genre's patented stylistic ticks and biggest clichés.

He built it on fairly safe ground by adapting an award-winning novel by author Dennis Lehane. His work has previously proved itself to be ideal Hollywood fodder, with earlier novels Mystic River and Shutter Island adapted by Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese, respectively.

Another of his books, Gone Baby Gone, was the source for Affleck's directional debut of the same name. As for his gangster-fiction credentials, Lehane was a writer for both The Wire and Boardwalk Empire.

In the author's 2012 crime novel Live by Night, Affleck seemed to have all the right ingredients for his self-adapted script: fedoras, tommy guns, corruption and prohibition, providing plenty of scope for ethical questions of race, faith and vice aplenty.

Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, an embittered First World War veteran living a romantic life as a self-proclaimed “outlaw”, a petty stickup guy without an affiliation to either of Boston’s rival Irish or Italian gangs.

Of course, such a neutral stance is unlikely to last when you get on the wrong side of one of the bosses (the Irish gang leader, played with grizzly aplomb by Robert Glenister) by having an affair with his mistress.

And so, after a failed bank raid and spells in jail and a hospital bed, Coughlin is blackmailed into working with the Italians, who send him to Florida to keep the bootleg liquor flowing north.

In Tampa, he meets starlet-turned-preacher Loretta Figgis (Elle Fanning) and kind-hearted Cuban Graciella Suarez (Zoe Saldana). Both of them comfortably outperform Sienna Miller as his vixen Boston mistress – about whom the best you can say is that she at least deserves some credit for almost approximating an Irish accent.

With veteran cinematographer Robert Richardson behind the lens – a regular collaborator of Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone – the film looks fantastic. The period sets gleam with a dreamlike Hollywood sheen.

But more grit could have been poured into the mix. While inevitably bloody, as the body count racks up it becomes apparent Affleck has little flair for action sequences.

His own performance is solid and workmanlike, but perhaps he gave himself too little to work with. Coughlin is irritatingly opaque. The typical gangster movie arc – in which a small-time hoodlum builds an empire that inevitably unravels due to the trappings of greed and vice – does not apply.

Coughlin is, by turns, a cautious, reluctant and compassionate mobster, whose moral superiority feels at odds with the milieu he chooses to inhabit. A tidy-messy-tidy plot-tying schism at the movie’s close only reinforces the feeling that, by playing a “nice gangster”, Affleck is trying to have his cake and eat it.

If so, it has left a bad taste in his mouth. Released three weeks ago in North America, Live by Night is already a contender for flop of the year, with projected studio losses of US$75million (Dh275m) based on its opening fortnight. It seems that right now at least, the gangster movie – certainly this one – is officially sleeping with the fishes.

It is rumoured that a contractual condition of securing funding for Live By Night was Affleck signing up to direct himself in the upcoming solo Batman movie. Following the dismal box office receipts, on February 1 Affleck announced he vacating the directional chair, and will now only star as the caped crusader. Could that just be a coincidence?​