Live By Night (2016)

Starring: Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Elle Fanning, Chris Cooper, Brendan Gleeson, Chris Messina, Sienna Miller, Matthew Maher, Remo Girone, Robert Glenister, Max Casella

Directed by: Ben Affleck

Rating: 1 2 3

Ben Affleck and Chris Messina in Live By Night

As far back as he can remember, Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) hasn't wanted to be a gangster. All he wants is a quiet life of crime, conducting smash'n'grab stick'em ups in downtown 1930s Boston without getting embroiled in murky gangland politics. But in a precarious Depression-era city torn between two rival underworld factions, the Irish racketeers run by Albert White (Robert Glenister) and Italian Mafioso headed by Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), Coughlin must pick a side. And after White murders his (treacherous, somewhat unpleasant) girlfriend Emma (Sienna Miller – not that I recognised her under two inches of flapper girl slap), he plumps for Pescatore, who dispatches him to Florida to run a rum smuggling operation.

Up to this point, the film has been very, for want of a better word, meh. From Once Upon a Time in America to, obvs, The Godfather to Bugsy Malone, we've seen it all before, and we've seen it done way better and with far more flair. (And as an aside, who here wouldn't want to see Ben Affleck splatted in the face by a splurge gun?)

Zoe Saldana and Ben Affleck in Live By Night

But things liven up when Coughlin reaches Florida, establishing a highly successful rum racket and falling in love in the process, with Zoe Saldana's Graciela. From now on, the film's title becomes more metaphorical, as most of the action is now drenched in blazing southern sunshine, bright as orange juice. And, as Coughlin finds himself up against the KKK (throw in a scene-stealing turn from Matthew Maher as smug, in-bred, racist redneck JD Pruitt) and fervent, flawed and fragile revivalist preacher Loretta Figgis (a haunting and sensitive performance from Elle Fanning), I stop comparing every scene to previous gangster flicks (even if Pescatore's spoilt brat of a son Digger (Max Casella) has clearly decided that Goodfellas' Tommy is the chap to emulate) and start actually enjoying the film on its own terms.

Elle Fanning and Ben Affleck in Live By Night

There's just one problem with the movie, and it's a biggie (literally). And one that director Ben Affleck could easily have avoided – by not casting actor Ben Affleck in the lead role. Poker-faced and stolid, Affleck's Coughlin is entirely lacking the dangerous charisma and simmering sexuality that make Henry Hill, Tony Montana or Michael Corleone such compelling gangster protagonists. Admittedly this is kind of the point – Coughlin doesn't want to be a gangster. But it also makes him, well, kinda dull, a hulking, lumbering presence, looming over the rest of the cast, encased in white linen suits like a mummy in its wrappings; the Man from Fray Bentos, he say yes...

I love a good gangster film, and Live By Night is, if not great, at least good enough. It looks good, the second half is gripping, there are some solid cameos from Brendan Gleeson and Chris Cooper and the ending is unusual for the genre (if a bit forced). But it would have been so much better with a leading man with more than two facial expressions... Ryan Gosling, anyone?

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