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Ben Affleck’s ‘Live by Night’ sizzles out

From left, Chris Cooper as Chief Figgis and Ben Affleck as Joe Coughlin in “Live By Night.”
From left, Chris Cooper as Chief Figgis and Ben Affleck as Joe Coughlin in “Live By Night.” Warner Bros. Pictures

What It’s About: A throwback to old-fashioned Prohibition gangster pictures, “Live by Night” is teeming in Roaring ’20s period details and atmosphere.

The crime drama is interesting because of an all-star cast and the Dennis Lehane pedigree (”Mystic River”), but it lacks the sizzle to really engage. For all its grit and bravado, it seems flat and airless. But it sure is gorgeous.

Adapted from Lehane’s 2012 novel, we follow Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck), a disillusioned World War I veteran who becomes an outlaw, robbing banks and drawing the wrath of other more powerful mobsters. After a near-fatal beating, he relocates from Boston to Florida, running rum and tussling with rival mobs, the KKK, police chief (Chris Cooper) and his drug addict-turned-evangelist daughter (Elle Fanning).

If it seems a lot is going on, it is, and perhaps the plot is too overstuffed for a feature film.

Affleck not only directed, but wrote the screenplay. This is his fourth film at the helm and his second Lehane adaptation — the first being his directorial debut, “Gone, Baby, Gone,” in 2007.

Performances: Affleck attempts to play a likable, more noble gangster, but he damps down the charm to be an outsider. Although as an ambitious go-getter, chasing the American Dream, the messages are mixed and muddled.

As he challenges more ruthless gangsters and corrupt officials, the mayhem escalates. Chris Messina stands out as his loyal wing man Dion.

Chris Cooper is solid as a police chief with secret vices, as is Brendan Gleeson as Joe’s father, who is on the Boston force.

As the love interests, Sienna Miller chews the scenery as Emma, a jaded gun moll, and Zoe Saldana is Joe’s beautiful, supportive, sweet wife, Graciela.

Elle Fanning (“20th Century Women”) gets more impressive with each film, and here she shows a range as a bad girl gone good, but with doubts about her own salvation.

What Works: The film looks great, thanks to the exceptional camera work from three-time Oscar winner Robert Richardson (”JFK,” “The Aviator” and “Hugo”).

The action scenes are staged well, with the period details impeccable. And those Roaring ’20s costumes are divine.

What Doesn’t Work: Lehane sets a captivating stage, fills it with complex characters, and explores the consequences from actions either ill-conceived or morally wrong. Most of the time, his film adaptions are first-rate. This would be in the middle, however.

All the ingredients are there, but it has trouble igniting. It has bursts of energy, but sputters more than it should.

“Live by Night”

  • Stars: 1/2
  • Director: Ben Affleck
  • Starring: Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, Zoe Saldana, Elle Fanning, Sienna Miller, Chris Messina and Robert Glenister.
  • Rated: R for strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity
  • Length: 2:08
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