Two-time Oscar-winning writer & director Ben Affleck of “Good Will Hunting” and “Argo” has helmed an above-average, old-fashioned, Prohibition Era gangster epic “Live by Night” (***1/2 OUT OF ****) with himself as star that bears greater resemblance to Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America” (1984) with Robert De Niro than Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” (1972) with Marlon Brando. At the same time, Affleck has tampered with the violent, empire-building gangster film formula. Mind you, “Live by Night” isn’t strictly traditional in its depiction of gangsters. Instead of machine gun massacres in the urban canyons of a northern metropolis, “Live by Night” stages machine gun massacres at luxury resort hotels amid the scenic splendor of rural southern Florida. Like the antihero that Affleck portrays with considerable style, charm, and restraint, “Live by Night” doesn’t abide by all gangster movie rules, particularly the tragic ending. Nevertheless, crime still doesn’t pay for the protagonist. As in most gangster movies, the mobsters count on avarice, treachery, blackmail, and betrayal to achieve their infamy. Affleck’s armed and dangerous anti-hero, however, displays neither the aggressive pugnacity of Edward G. Robinson in “Little Caesar” (1931) nor does he behave like James Cagney’s trigger-happy hoodlum in “The Public Enemy” (1931.) Instead, he imitates Robert De Niro’s Jewish gangster David ‘Noodles’ Aaronson in the Leone masterpiece. Affleck’s Irish-American hooligan Joe Coughlin knows when to say ‘no’ and abandon the business before his rivals riddle him with bullets to kingdom come. My only complaint—and it constitutes more of a quibble—is the 2 hours plus running time. This chronicle about a self-proclaimed ‘outlaw’ who ascends from the ranks of blue-collar, unaffiliated thieves and emerges as the white-collar chieftain of a mob-supervised, multi-million-dollar enterprise doesn’t exactly lunge off the screen. Affleck allows things to develop gradually and steeps the logistics of crime in atmosphere galore as well as memorable characters. Strong villains make the best movies with their notorious skulduggery. Faithfully adapting the second novel in Dennis Lahane’s Coughlin series, Affleck tangles with three unforgettable dastards.
The son of an incorruptible Boston Police Deputy Superintendent, Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck of “The Town”) refuses to accommodate his father, Thomas Coughlin (Brendan Gleeson of “Gangs of New York”), when it comes to being a law-abiding citizen. Joe survived the devastating trench warfare of World War I in France as a U.S. Marine while men around him perished by the dozens on the battlefield. He has come home to Boston with nothing but utter contempt for the politicians who sold out the troops at the international treaty negotiation. Joe vows never to take orders again. Things don’t pan out exactly as our hero had anticipated. Initially, Joe and two masked accomplices knock over an illegal, high-stakes poker game with a paid-off insider, Emma Gould (Sienna Miller of “American Sniper”), who knows her way around Boston. Eventually, one of Boston’s most notorious gangsters, Albert White (Robert Glenister of “Safe Conduct”), learns that Joe has been raiding his venues. White insists that our protagonist join his gang and use his skills for something more appropriate to his talents. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the jealous White, Joe has been sneaking around behind White’s back with his mistress Emma. Mafia crime boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone of “Angel with a Gun”) summons Joe and asks him to kill White. Adamantly, Joe refuses to attach himself to the Italians. Maso threatens to inform on Joe if he doesn’t eliminate White.
Meantime, Joe plans a big bank robbery so Emma and he can flee to California with some capital. The robbery goes sideways. Three policemen die trying to nab Joe and his accomplices. Eventually, White catches up with Joe after Emma betrays him. White brutally beats Joe up. He is poised to finish him off when Thomas Coughlin rolls up with the Boston Police in tow. Thomas arrests Joe, but he convinces a harsh judge prosecute his son on lesser charges since Joe’s accomplices killed the cops. Furthermore, Thomas informs Joe that Emma died when her getaway car plunged into the river. Joe sweats out forty months behind bars in the Charlestown State Prison. After his release, Joe offers to work for the Pescatore family, and Maso dispatches him to Ybor City, Tampa, Florida, to handle their rum-running enterprise. No sooner has Joe set up shop than the evil White dispatches not only his own henchmen but also hooded KKK gunmen to make life miserable for our hero. Joe creates an enormously profitable operation for Maso. Nevertheless, he doesn’t abandon his yearning to wreck vengeance on White for what he did not only to him but also Emma.
“Foxcatcher” production designer Jess Gonchor, “Tree of Life” costume designer Jacqueline West, and “Forrest Gump” set decorator Nancy Haigh has painstakingly recreated both the glory and the squalor of the Prohibition Era. The gangsters attire themselves lavishly in posh suits with fedora-style hats, while their dames doll themselves up with equal magnificence. The gangsters cruise around in vintage cars of the period, and their henchmen wield that indispensable weapon of the day: the .45-caliber, Thompson submachine gun with drum magazines rather than stick magazines. Indeed, Affleck has preserved virtually all the elements of the classic gangster movie during the Depression about illegal rum-runners. After fate cheats Joe with Emma’s sudden death, he gets involved romantically with a gorgeous Cuban lady, Graciela Suarez (Zoe Saldana of “Star Trek Beyond”), who participates in the business of selling illegal rum with her brother. “Live by Night” doesn’t dwell only on the gangsters and their illicit business, but also in the lives of the supporting characters, particularly a young woman (Elle Fanning) who suffered from the adversity of heroin addiction and later becomes an evangelist to protest vice of any kind. The cast is superb, and nobody gives a bad performance. Despite its leisurely, slow-burn pace, “Live by Night” manages to present the exploits of gangsters in a setting and manner that few gangster movies have, especially with its lukewarm finale.