Ben Affleck. He's a hard one to pin down. He moves between genres and styles of film like a chameleon, doing his best to try and capture the best of whatever confines he's currently working in.
With his gangster drama, Live By Night, he struggles to put together a coherent piece of work that glues the viewer to the screen. It all looks pretty. The set designs are phenomenal. The costumes are absolutely period perfect. And the acting borders on a verifiably awesome recreation of a time lost with dialogue that hits many fine points. The general tone of his work here magnifies and pleasantly surprises with scenery reminiscent of The Godfather or The Untouchables. And the few action sequences including an all out machine gun bloodbath and an old school car chase all deliver the goods we're looking for.
There's also a thing called scripting. As a film, Affleck's Live By Night is a stymied bore that's only highlighted by the spectacular moments listed above. Between a story that's obviously truncated to fit the already overlong runtime and odd line readings from many of the cast members, this was a case of Mr. Affleck not doing the same due diligence as he did on The Town and Gone Baby Gone. He feels comfortable. In fact, too comfortable. There's no drive or ambition to Live By Night. Characters are underdeveloped, enemies are not fully realized, and the life tale of Joe Coughlin feels mildly confused and edited to suit some type of typical Hollywood gangster archetype. Giving him the benefit of the doubt here is all I can do. However, this stumbling block actually makes me fearful of what he might do with The Batman.
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Everything you've read about this movie in other reviews is spot on. It's dreadfully slow with gun fights and deaths only interjected at times where they're almost necessary to wake up the audience. Unlike the aforementioned Untouchables, there is no tension, no real baddies to latch on to, and an uncanny feeling of flatness that just doesn't ever bring us into the realm of a new gangster classic. Again, the movie looks great and brings back that prohibition era gangster look with absolute precision. But it's not enough to save a motion picture that's too hung up on trying to deceive its audience with style over substance.
For fans of the era, Live By Night will get a passing grade just for the top level attention to details. Yet, most others will find many faults with this latest Affleck project. All the character aspects that made his last two efforts so great are missing in action here. I don't want to bash too hard because we all know that every creator makes mistakes and bad days. Remaining hopeful about his next projects is all we can do right now. If this is the worst he ever does, he'll be okay.
Live By Night is a by the books gangster film that's dry and too sullen.