[Screen It]

"LIVE BY NIGHT"
(2017) (Ben Affleck, Chris Messina) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A WWI veteran turned low-level Boston criminal signs on to work for an Italian mobster in Florida in order to get revenge on an Irish mobster who wronged him in the past.
PLOT:
It's the 1920s and Joe Coughlin (BEN AFFLECK) is a low-level Boston criminal who turned to crime after returning from WWI despite his father, Thomas Coughlin (BRENDAN GLEESON), being a longtime cop. While he wants no part of the rum battle occurring between the Irish mob boss, Albert White (ROBERT GLENISTER), and Italian mafioso Maso Pescatore (REMO GIRONE), Joe is having a fling with Albert's girlfriend, Emma Gould (SIENNA MILLER), who he also uses as his "inside man" to pull off various heists. That doesn't end well for her, which also holds true for a bank robbery that results in the deaths of several police officers and Joe being sent off to prison for several years.

When Joe gets out, he wants revenge on Albert who's now operating out of Tampa, and thus aligns himself with Maso who sends him there to undermine his rival. Joined by one of his past associates, Dion Bartolo (CHRIS MESSINA), Joe meets with Cuban cigar business siblings Esteban (MIGUEL J. PIMENTEL) and Graciela Suarez (ZOE SALDANA) and tries to have them break ties with Albert. While the Boston criminals agree to criminal activity constraints set by local sheriff Chief Figgis (CHRIS COOPER) -- whose daughter, Loretta (ELLE FANNING), is headed off to Hollywood to be an actress -- they run afoul of Figgis' brother-in-law, RD Pruitt (MATTHEW MAHER), and his KKK cronies who don't take kindly to anyone whose ethnicity doesn't match theirs.

As they get their booze operation up and running and start building a casino, Joe and his team must not only contend with those men and Maso's son, Digger (MAX CASELLA), being sent to oversee the operations, but also Loretta who's returned to Florida a changed woman and is against gambling and other sins based on her newfound evangelism.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
I imagine a lot of today's young people don't realize how easy they have it compared to their predecessors nearly a century ago. Nowadays, and with new technology popping up seemingly every week, someone can create a product or business, get it in front of thousands or millions of people (sometimes with next to no marketing budget) and then become millionaires and even billionaires in a relatively short amount of time.

That wasn't the case back before the Depression when the only way to fast and large amounts of money was through criminal endeavors. And even if you toiled away for years and managed to build up a successful company with nice profits, you often had to deal with being squeezed by some mafioso who wanted a cut of the action.

In "Live By Night," Ben Affleck's 1920s era protagonist has chosen the former path, what with coming back from the battlefields of WWI a changed man. Despite his father (Brendan Gleeson) being a career cop with a figurative blind eye toward his son's endeavors, Joe makes a living as a small-time crook and wants no part of the Italian or Irish mob operations run respectively by Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) and Albert White (Robert Glenister).

The only problem is he's having a fling with Emma (Sienna Miller) who just so happens not only to be his "inside man" for some of the robberies, but also the girlfriend of the Irish mob boss. That naturally doesn't end well, which also holds true for a bank robbery getaway that leaves a number of cops dead and Joe jailed for a few years.

When he gets out, he wants revenge on Albert and thus aligns himself with Maso, resulting in him and one of his former crew members, Dion (Chris Messina), headed to Tampa to run operations down there and put the Irish mafioso (who's also relocated there) out of business.

That involves aligning himself with a Cuban cigar enterprise run by Esteban Suarez (Miguel J. Pimentel) and his sister, Graciela (Zoe Saldana) -- who draws Joe's eye and vice-versa -- as well as the local sheriff (Chris Cooper) who's okay with criminal behavior as long as it stays within the parameters he defines. Besides, that lawman is a bit distracted by the fact that his daughter (Elle Fanning) is headed off to Hollywood to be a star.

As Joe and Dion build the business and work to open a casino and thus go legit they end up facing some foes that usually don't appear in gangster flicks. And those would be the KKK -- represented by RD Pruitt (Matthew Maher) who's more than just a loose cannon -- and evangelical Christians who see gambling, and thus the casino, as sinful.

That's a lot of plot lines and characters for a gangster film that clocks in at just a bit more than two hours, and Affleck -- who also directs from his own screenplay -- doesn't always manage to keep things flowing as smoothly as one would like. In fact, at times the flick feels downright haphazard and certainly over-ambitious in terms of cramming so much into what's supposed to be a sprawling gangster epic that ultimately falls short.

Individual sequences, moments and performances sometimes work fairly well. Yet, as a collective whole, the overall experience isn't as successful as it feels disjointed and like it's trying too hard, with Affleck's recurring voice-over narration coming off as a desperate, yet lazy attempt to bring it all together. And aside from the brief inclusion of the mob vs. the KKK material, there's nothing notable that we haven't seen before -- and often done in a more engaging or fascinating way -- in other bygone mob/gangster movies of old.

All of which is too bad and a bit surprising considering Affleck previous being behind the camera has resulted in the likes of "Argo," "The Town" and "Gone Baby Gone." This one falls short of those, which is something of a crime, although it's unlikely it's going to steal too much money from the box office. "Live By Night" rates as a 4.5 out of 10.




Reviewed January 9, 2017 / Posted January 13, 2017


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