Buried in the middle of “Live By Night” is a first-rate period gangster film. Set in late-Prohibition Florida, it has interesting characters and a unique setting for the genre. Ben Affleck directs with style, acts with cool confidence and writes snappy dialogue. There’s even pretty scenery.
Getting there — and wrapping it up — is the hard part. Like “Mystic River” and “Gone Baby Gone,” this is an adaptation of a Dennis Lehane novel, which means great atmosphere and way too many ridiculous plot twists. Like the author, Affleck doesn’t know when to hold back.
In true noirish fashion, “Live By Night” is narrated by its lead character, Joe Coughlin (Affleck), a low-level criminal in (where else?) Boston. Joe tries to avoid the crime bosses who run the city, preferring the life of a freelance “outlaw,” but he’s in love with the girlfriend (Sienna Miller) of the Irish mob’s leader (Robert Glenister). This ends in predictable fashion, and Joe eventually goes to work for the Italian boss (Remo Girone), who sends him to run the booze-and-gambling racket in Tampa.
Getting out of Boston suits the movie as well as it does Joe. No longer a lovesick stooge, he gains some edge, staring down everyone from corrupt cops to KKK members, while having enough of a heart to fall for savvy Cuban immigrant Graciela (Zoe Saldana). Settling into the lively, diverse Ybor City neighborhood, Joe becomes a serious local player.
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Affleck seems to enjoy this change of pace, both in front of and behind the camera. Joe becomes a different, much more entertaining person. The supporting characters are a fascinating mix of crooks, lunatics and lost souls, played by the likes of singer Miguel and KC native Chris Cooper. The clash of cultures and the sweep of history provide a terrific backdrop for Joe’s adventures.
Unfortunately, Affleck’s adaptation includes the excesses that mar other Lehane stories. Aside from one great car chase/shootout, the Boston segment is dull, dragging on with no payoff. The last act is completely unnecessary. Attempts at social commentary are sporadically successful, but just as often forced and obvious.
It’s all just too much for one movie to handle. It might even be too much for a novel, but that medium has the luxury of sprawling out and taking its time. Adapting for the screen requires more restraint, which “Live By Night” does not possess. That’s fine when you’re staging vehicular mayhem and gunfights, not when you’re supposed to be telling a story.
Read more of freelancer Loey Lockerby’s reviews at suchacritic.com.
‘Live By Night’
Rated R. Time: 2:08.