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‘Live By Night’ not quite right

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Affleck’s overstuffed crime drama underdelivers

There are relatively few Hollywood figures who have the juice to essentially do whatever they want. These folks are the ones who sit in the sweet spot, dead center in the Venn diagram of critical acclaim and commercial appeal. They are the ones who both win Oscars and anchor franchise tentpoles.

Ben Affleck is one of those few.

He’s got plenty of shiny hardware and he’s the latest to don the cowl of the Batman. Over the past decade, he has turned himself into one of the preeminent triple threats (actor/director/writer) in mainstream American film. In short … he’s got the juice.

Unfortunately, his choice of what to do with it – the crime drama “Live By Night,” based on the Dennis Lehane novel of the same name and featuring Affleck as director, screenwriter and star – doesn’t really merit the professional capital he must have expended to make it happen.

Affleck stars as Joe Coughlin, a petty criminal operating in Boston during the early years of Prohibition. He’s a former soldier who came home from WWI and became a thief, much to the chagrin of his police officer father Thomas (Brendan Gleeson, “Assassin’s Creed”). Coughlin’s crew develops a bit of a reputation and winds up attracting the attention of some of the top guys in the city’s organized crime scene.

Specifically, when Joe and his buddies knock over a card game run by Irish mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister, TV’s “Close to the Enemy”), Joe draws some unwelcome attention from White – not least because he is making time with White’s mistress, a woman named Emma (Sienna Miller, “The Lost City of Z”).

Circumstances lead Joe down south – all the way to Tampa, where he is tasked with gaining control of the rum market. He reunites with his old partner Dion (Chris Messina, “The Sweet Life”) and quickly partners up with the Cuban powers – specifically, a young woman named Graciela Suarez (Zoe Saldana, “Star Trek Beyond”) – and secures a handshake agreement with the local police chief (Chris Cooper, TV’s “11.22.63”).

Of course, it isn’t that easy. Joe has to confront not only the realities of his new surroundings – including unexpected religious fervor and run-ins with the KKK, among other things – but also the sins of his past, with people he thought he’d moved beyond reassert themselves in his life. But it’s more than just booze and money for Joe – he’s found something deeper to care about, and he’s willing to sacrifice his soul to protect what he holds dearest.

“Live By Night” isn’t a bad movie. It’s got a beautiful look and a dynamic cast. But Affleck has undercut himself just a bit in his choice of source material; do we really need another Boston-inspired crime movie? Sure, much of the movie takes place in Tampa, but it’s still undeniably Boston-centric. And the fact that he’s adapting another Dennis Lehane novel (after “Gone Baby Gone”) just contributes to the vague sense of been-here-before emanating from this new film.

It’s not a talent thing – Affleck the writer is solid and Affleck the director is surprisingly deft. He has also proven capable of directing himself – no easy feat. And none of those three skills fail him per se in “Live By Night” – they just don’t cohere properly. There’s plenty of narrative possibility and a lush aesthetic and some compelling moments, yet the whole is somewhat less than the sum of the parts.

There’s no faulting Affleck’s performance; he’s actually pretty good, albeit in a role that feels almost like a greatest-hits album. The supporting cast it uniformly talented, though there’s a surprising amount of variance in the quality of their performances. Glenister and Remo Girone are a bit cartoonish as mob bosses, while Miller and Gleeson come off as caricatures more than anything else.

However, Cooper is quite good as the conflicted police chief (Elle Fanning plays his daughter and is pretty fantastic, especially in the third act. Messina strikes just the right notes as Joe’s right-hand man. Saldana does a lot with a little; she overplays the sultry card occasionally, but she’s so magnetic that it hardly matters.

“Live By Night” suffers for trying to do too much. Even with a running time over two hours, it manages to feel overstuffed; one suspects that Affleck the writer got hung up on trying to preserve too much of the source material. With a more judicious editing process – on both the page and the screen – this movie could have been good. As it stands, it’s just OK – an acceptable, unexceptional cinematic offering.

It just goes to show – star power might be enough to get a movie made, but it isn’t always enough to make it great. Affleck’s ambition is admirable, but at least this time, his reach exceeded his grasp.

[2.5 out of 5]

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