Ben Affleck has become a powerhouse of Hollywood. The man can act, write, direct and produce - and with a distinction and calibre to make others envious. Yet it's been five years since 'Argo', and his string of hits since then ('Gone Girl') are matched equally with the misses ('Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice'). Donning his four hats once again (including one very prominent panama) for his new film 'Live By Night', can Affleck uphold his standard of quality?
We're transported back to the 1920s, where Prohibition is in full swing - which doesn't stop the parties from being too. Small-time criminal Joe Coughlin (Affleck) is persuaded to side with Italian gangsters and, after landing in hot water in Boston, head down to Florida to gain a monopoly from the Irish rivals. Just when everything seems to be going to plan, Joe's enemies turn to extreme violence, and the previously peaceful mobster has to decide where his priorities lie.
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It's important to note that the screenplay was adapted by Affleck from the 2012 award-winning novel by Dennis Lehane. This is rather vital as the film doesn't attempt to hide this fact at all. Characters will wander on screen, fulfil their plot devices, and conveniently depart, their piece neatly wrapped up; you can basically see the chapter titles. Characters' motivations are also able to change in a heartbeat, which leads to numerous bizarre and illogical events being played out with little to no rationale. In particular, the ending severely overstays its welcome, continuing with a series of unnecessary and redundant events which add absolutely nothing - if anything, they detract substantially from the story.
Yet the biggest concern is the film's insistence to tell us what's happening rather than show us. We're simply told that a previously key character has died, or a vital plot point has occurred, as narration and exposition are favoured over action. In the medium of film, the power of the image is everything - so why are we being denied it here?
These may all be worrying flaws, but no issue is so criminal as the disappointing use of so many talented actors. Affleck largely comes across as mundane on screen, which is a shame. Zoe Saldana ('Star Trek Beyond') as Joe's wife, Brendan Gleeson ('In The Heart Of The Sea', 'Calvary') as his father, Chris Cooper ('August: Osage County') as the Chief and Elle Fanning ('The Neon Demon') as his daughter are all brutally underutilised here, barely given a chance to shine, with bit-parts or fleeting glances of two-dimensional people. Chris Messina ('The Newsroom', 'Ruby Sparks') as Joe's partner in crime is one of the few who gets a good share of the spotlight and relishes it.
The biggest concern is the film's insistence to tell us what's happening rather than show us.
It's not all bad news, though - after all, this is still an above-average movie. The dialog is genuine and believable, with a very light peppering of wit, more of which would have stopped the film coming off quite so serious. The sets, production design and costumes are absolutely stunning; this is a lavish period piece that honours the 1920s with its attention to detail. Affleck's directing is also solid - perhaps not as adventurous as his previous work, but with enough energy and embellishment to reassure he hasn't lost his award-winning talent.
In all, 'Live By Night' doesn't explore any new ground, and what it retreads it does so unsubtly and unimaginatively. My gut instinct is to say that they tried to jam too much of the source material onto the big screen, which has been far from a success. There is some real potential here, but it's lost amidst mediocrity and stagnancy. This is not the exceptional work we've come to expect from Ben Affleck, in any of his roles. Perhaps he's spread himself too thin this time. This is an inconsequential gangster flick that won't stay with you after departing the cinema. Enjoy as light entertainment only.