“You can get further with a kind word and a gun than you can with just a kind word.” – Robert De Niro as Al Capone in The Untouchables
Live by Night is based on an award-winning novel by Dennis Lahane. Ben Affleck adapted that novel for the big screen and he is an Academy Award winner for Best Original Screenplay (he shared that award with Matt Damon). The last time he sat in the director’s chair was for Argo and that movie received the Oscar for Best Picture. Unfortunately, Live by Night doesn’t come close to living up to the promise that these things normally entail.
“Joe Coughlin” (Affleck) is the son of a high-ranking Boston police officer (Brendan Gleeson). Joe became an outlaw after serving in World War I because he never wanted to have to take orders again. He and his buddies knock off a card game in the back of a speakeasy owned by “Albert White” (Robert Glenister) aided by his “inside man”. That turns out to be “Emma Gould” (Sienna Miller) who also happens to be Albert’s girlfriend.
“Maso Pescatore” (Remo Ginore) is the leader of an Italian mob gang that is locked in a struggle with Albert White’s gang for control of speakeasies and the rum supply in the area. Maso approaches Joe with a true Hobson’s Choice. Either side with Maso and help him get rid of Albert, or he will let Albert know that Joe and Emma are lovers. Joe refuses to join with Maso.
After a badly botched bank robbery, Joe is betrayed by Emma and is saved from a painful death when he is arrested for the bank robbery at just the right moment. After his release from prison he goes to see Maso and agrees to put the interests of the Pescatore family above his own so he can seek vengeance on Albert. Albert has been forced to flee to Miami. Maso sends Joe and Joe’s cohort “Dion” (Chris Messina) to Ybor City, a suburb of Tampa.
There Joe meets and eventually marries “Graciela” (Zoe Saldana) who is the sister of “Esteban Suarez” (Miguel) who Joe is doing business with. “RD Pruitt” (Matthew Maher), a member of the local KKK begins attacking Joe’s speakeasies in an effort to extort Joe. Joe uses graphic photos of “Loretta Figgis” (Elle Fanning) to force her father “Irving Figgis” (Chris Cooper) the Tampa Chief of Police to take care of RD once and for all.
By now Joe is planning for the future and convinces Maso of the genius of putting a casino into a new resort under construction, and using their influence to get gambling legalized. Loretta returns and begins a new life preaching the gospel, including putting a stop to the effort to make gambling legal. This will lead to a confrontation between Joe and Maso.
That is a lot of story for a 128 minute movie. That makes sense since the mass market paperback version of Dennis Lahane’s novel runs 576 pages. While the production values are very high and Affleck makes the most of the gorgeous scenic shots, the meat and potatoes of this movie are little more than a re-hashing of other, better movies about gangsters and prohibition.
Ben Affleck is a talented actor but it may be that he is one of those great directors who gets the most from the performances of others to the detriment of his own acting. It isn’t easy to balance both tasks and when you add the writing and producing to the load, it simply may have been too much for one man to take on. Even when; or perhaps especially when, he is also busy being the new Batman.