Film Review: “Live By Night”

Starring: Ben Affleck, Sienna Miller and Zoe Saldana
Directed by: Ben Affleck
Rated: R
Running time: 2 hrs 8 mins
Warner Bros

Our Score: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

If you don’t include the 1930s and 40s, the list of good gangster films is pretty short. Off the top of my head, I consider “The Godfather” trilogy, “Goodfellas,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Road to Perdition” and “Miller’s Crossing” to be among the best of the genre. I’m guessing that Ben Affleck also agrees with my list as his latest directorial effort, “Live by Night,” samples a little bit of all of them.

After serving his country in World War I, Joe Couglin (Affleck, who not only directed the film but adapted it’s screenplay from a novel by Dennis Lehane) decides he’s not going to take orders from anyone any longer. Wanting to “sleep during the day and live by night,” he decides to pursue a life of crime with two pals from the neighborhood. He doesn’t want to be a gangster. He just wants to be.

Of course, things never go according to plan and Joe soon finds himself in love with the boss’ girl, Emma (Miller). The boss finds out and, after a pretty good beating, Joe lucks himself into the hospital, where he plots his revenge. A revenge that’s not best served cold but one that emanates from the sunny prohibition streets of Tampa.

Directed with an obvious love for the genre, “Live By Night” is a stylish – man did they know how to dress back then – film that overcomes some obvious errors with a first rate cast. Affleck does fine as Joe and I couldn’t help wondering, as I watched the film, if he wouldn’t be perfect if they ever did a bio pic about Gene Kelly. He has the chin and he can certainly wear the clothes. Miller also excels as a girl who seems to be hiding a secret. As Joe’s rum-running partner and later wife, Saldana rises above what could have been a stereotypical “black woman in the south” caricature and makes her Gabriella a strong and equal partner. Other notable performances are turned in by Chris Cooper, Brendan Gleeson and Chris Messina.

Technically the film is quite faithful to the Tampa of the times and, as a Tampa native who once lived at Nebraska on 26th Street, I couldn’t help but swell with pride when I learned that Joe was selling his rum as far north as Nebraska and 27th Street. Not sure if I like rum – I’m not much of a drinker – but it’s nice to know that in the early 1930s I would have been able to have a drink every now and then!

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