IT’S clear from the opening frame of Ben Affleck’s adaptation of favoured author Denis Lehane’s novel Live by Night that he’s a big fan of gangster movies.
Everything about it feels steeped in the lore of that once ubiquitous Hollywood genre of men in sharp suits wielding machine guns and speeding away in fancy cars. However, barely a scene of this overstretched wannabe gangster epic feels authentic but merely a visually handsome copycat that makes you wish you were watching the greats of the genre instead.
Affleck himself stars as Joe Coughlin, the son of a police chief (Brendan Gleeson) in 1920s Prohibition Era Boston who has long since turned his back on his strict upbringing, rising up the ranks to become one of the top workers for the local Irish kingpin Albert White (Robert Glenister).
When Albert finds out that he’s secretly been bedding his mistress Emma (Sienna Miller), Joe is left badly beaten and in jail for the murder of three policemen during a heist gone awry.
After getting out of prison and furious at being wronged by his former employer, he joins up with a rival mobster and relocates to Tampa, Florida where he takes on the rum trade that to his delight cuts into Albert’s profits.
Affleck’s disappointingly shallow crime flick feels like a mishmash of every gangster tale out there. The shadow of everything, from The Godfather to Scarface to TV’s Boardwalk Empire, hangs over it to the point of distraction and it just doesn’t have the dramatic weight, thematic intricacy or unique style to give it a personality of its own.
It becomes more preposterous as it goes on, with Joe trying to seize greater power for himself by attempting to open a large casino. But he faces resistance from a local young woman (Elle Fanning) preaching religious morality and from the volatile KKK trying to carve their piece of the pie. It’s just a shame it doesn’t have the self-awareness to make the ridiculousness fun.
It’s not a total waste. It’s visually well-designed, with decent performances and with Affleck showcasing his talent for directing an effective action sequence. But it’s a film that, like its cavalcade of character personas, is handsome to look at but hollow and all too familiar.