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Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017 12:04 am

Stylish Night is a by-the-numbers exercise

Ben Affleck as Joe Coughlin in Live By Night.

 

Much like Ron Howard, Ben Affleck is an old school, workman-like director. Give him any script, and he’s likely to come up with a competently made movie. He has no overarching theme that runs throughout his work, he has no distinctive visual style, and while his films have been entertaining, none of them require much in the way of deeper examination.

His latest, the gangster film Live By Night based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, is much the same, a movie that’s entertaining and looks quite good at times but is ultimately a disposable work as it brings nothing new to the table where the crime genre is concerned. You can tell that Affleck’s intention is to create an epic on the scale of The Godfather and Goodfellas or even the pop touchstone Scarface. Like those films, the story has a generational sweep to it and the characters at its center are able to adapt to social change for their financial benefit, while the efforts of cinematographer Robert Richardson and production designer Jess Gonchor provide the film with a prestigious look that gives it the sheen of respectability.

Yet Night is a by-the-numbers exercise from the start, as World War I veteran Joe Coughlin (Affleck) is an emotional shell after seeing the horrors of war. With his morality shaken, he turns to a life of crime, a choice that takes his Irish police chief father (Brendan Gleeson) aback, as does the fact that he’s fallen for a tramp by the name of Emma Gould (Sienna Miller, giving the film’s best performance) who happens to be mob boss Albert White’s (Robert Glenister) girl. Needless to say, this doesn’t end well, and after suffering a severe beating and three years in jail, Coughlin is ready for a change.

He becomes an operative with White’s rival, Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), and is sent to Florida to run and expand his rum-running operation. While doing so, he runs afoul of the Ku Klux Klan, cozies up to the local chief of police Irving Figgis (an excellent Chris Cooper), makes some dire enemies, and falls in love with Graciella (Zoe Saldana), sister of the Cuban rum dealer he’s in cahoots with.

Part of the problem is that there are far too many narrative irons in the fire, and at times the film has a scattered feel to it that prevents it from building a sense of momentum. Perhaps the biggest flaw in the script is the lack of focus where Coughlin is concerned. At one moment ruthless, the next rueful over his sins, it’s as if Lehane and Afflick want to cast their protagonist as a conflicted man who is good at the core but forced by circumstances to act reprehensibly. It simply doesn’t fly, nor does it make for a complex or compelling character, simply an ill-written one.

Just as he did with Argo, Affleck does himself no favors in casting himself in the lead. He’s never been a strong actor nor a charismatic one, necessary qualities for any characters in the gangster genre. Fortunately, he’s smart enough to round out the cast with seasoned veterans who pick up the slack.

Night isn’t necessarily a bad film. There are moments when it does come alive and there are glimmers throughout of what it might have been. However, in hitting far too many familiar notes, it dooms itself to being nothing more than a good-looking piece of cinematic déjà vu.

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