Review: Live By Night

Set in the 1920s and 30s, Ben Affleck stars as a small-time crim with a police captain for a father (Brendan Gleeson). Affleck gets in cahoots with Irish mob boss Robert Glenister and falls for his mistress (an unconvincing Sienna Miller), before a botched robbery sees several cops dead, and dear old dad standing by while Affleck gets beat up by some disgruntled cops. Gleeson does however, pull enough favours to ensure his wayward son only serves a few years in prison. Out of the slammer he defects to opposition gangster, Italian Mafioso Remo Girone who sends him to Florida. Along with his right-hand man Chris Messina, Affleck is assigned the task of working alongside a Cuban bootlegger (after booting Glenister out of the operation), and hooks up romantically with said Cuban bootlegger’s sister (Zoe Saldana). He also forges a tenuous relationship with Tampa sheriff Chris Cooper, whilst getting on the wrong side of the sheriff’s idiot KKK-member brother-in-law Matthew Maher. Elle Fanning plays the sheriff’s wayward daughter who eventually turns into an anti-gambling bible-thumping public speaker.

Writer-director-star Ben Affleck’s 2017 crime/noir pic from the Dennis Lehane (“Mystic River”, “Gone Baby Gone”) novel is a frustrating experience. Watchable and better than its reputation, it’s nonetheless an imperfect attempt at a kind of mixture of “They Drive By Night” and “Casablanca” and any Jimmy Cagney crime film you care to name. It’s better than “Mulholland Falls” and certainly Michael Mann’s botched “Public Enemies”, but there’s one massive black hole at the centre of the film it’s never quite able to overcome: Leading man Ben Affleck. Affleck is a solid portrayer of slicksters both good and amoral, but despite a suitable square jaw he’s miscast at…whatever the hell he’s trying to do here. He’s tedious, and despite doing a halfway decent hardboiled narration, he doesn’t otherwise register much on screen here. It’s a shame, because you could see plenty of other actors making this character work; Tom Hardy, Josh Brolin (it’s his wheelhouse), Joel Edgerton, Jason Clarke, possibly Mark Wahlberg could’ve given it a crack, too. To give a bit of Hollywood screen context here, it’s the kind of role and the kind of film that in the 30s, 40s, or 50s that would lend itself to stars like Cagney, Robinson, Tracy, and in particular early Burt Lancaster. Do any of those guys remind you of Ben Affleck? Of course not, Affleck’s closer to a matinee idol-type, albeit slicker and cockier. So our leading man is ‘meh’, and ‘meh’ simply isn’t good enough. He drags the film down a peg single-handedly, which is a shame because there’s a lot to like elsewhere. It’s basically a throwback to 40s/50s crime-noir (despite being set a couple of decades earlier), but done in colour and, like the superior “L.A. Confidential” with the kind of raw language, violence, and sexuality that cinema at that time never really afforded due to censorship/the Production Code, but you knew was likely indicative of the era and sleazy characters nonetheless.

Brendan Gleeson immediately grabs you as Affleck’s morally upstanding police captain father. There’s fatherly ‘tough love’ and then there’s ‘Holy shit, he’s gonna let his hooligan son get beaten the fuck up by other cops’. This is most certainly no father-son bonding flick right here. Gleeson is excellent, so it’s a real shame that he’s only in the first third of the film at most (Apparently his absence is explained, but I mustn’t have heard it). Alongside Affleck’s deficient performance, Gleeson’s absence hurts the film. Also early on we get a really exciting car chase, which is interesting given the lower speeds of vehicles of the period. It manages to work. Chris Messina (who seems to be having fun) and particularly Chris Cooper and Remo Girone are terrific in their larger supporting roles (though I might’ve liked another scene or two with Girone, actually). Elle Fanning also gives a really interesting, sad performance that is somewhere in the vicinity of Jean Simmons in “Elmer Gantry” and one of the girls from “The Virgin Suicides”. In smaller turns, Anthony Michael Hall (who is now middle-aged, in case you didn’t know) and former “Doogie Howser M.D.” co-star Max Casella (giving a good, slimy pissant performance) help out, too.

I really like Zoe Saldana, she looks sensational and clearly she has a presence and charisma that it captivating. However, cast as a Cuban she isn’t right for the role, accent, or the world on display here in general. It’s funny though, despite the miscasting of the two romantic leads, the film still manages to be somewhat interesting, if not quite enough for a wholesale recommendation. I mean, how many Old Hollywood gangster pics featured the Ku Klux Klan? None that I can think of, and that certainly provides an interest point here, especially with the deliciously scummy Matthew Maher as the idiot racist brother-in-law of Chris Cooper’s character. Very Strother Martin-esque in performance and demeanour, Maher (previously unknown to me) is a constant source of irritation in the best way possible. You can’t wait for this dumb creep to get beaten to a pulp. By anybody. Seriously, will someone please get rid of this twit?

Affleck the writer-director (with fine previous directorial efforts like “Gone Baby Gone” and “Argo” to his name already) fares far better than Affleck the actor in this 1920s and 30s set gangster pic that nonetheless mixes modern cinematic touches with 40s and 50s era noir filmmaking. With all those different eras blended together it ends up a lot more watchable and smoother than you’d think, but is just shy of being totally worthwhile due to the miscasting of the two romantic leads. Bit of a shame, though the cinematography and production design are tops.

Rating: C+


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