Oscar winner Ben Affleck ("Argo") directed and stars in the dramatic crime thriller "Live by Night." Affleck also wrote the screenplay based on the award-winning best-seller by Dennis Lehane, marking the second collaboration for the fellow Boston natives, following the acclaimed drama "Gone Baby Gone."
"Live by Night" is set in the roaring `20s when Prohibition hasn't stopped the flow of booze in an underground network of gangster-run speakeasies. The opportunity to gain power and money is there for any man with enough ambition and nerve and Joe Coughlin, the son of the Boston Police Superintendent, long ago turned his back on his strict upbringing for the spoils of being an outlaw. But even among criminals there are rules and Joe breaks a big one: crossing a powerful mob boss by stealing his money and his moll. The fiery affair ends in tragedy, setting Joe on a path of revenge, ambition, romance and betrayal that propels him out of Boston and up the ladder of Tampa's steamy rum-running underworld.
"We're not God's children."
It's unfortunate when a filmmaker stumbles. Their rise to creative heights is a glorious and exciting thing to see happen. After each film gets released to better and better reviews, you want that filmmaker to keep that productivity going. But, there's inevitably a fall. While Ben Affleck's star power as a man behind the camera is still on the rise, he certainly stubbed his toe with his latest effort, Live by Night. It's not that the film is terrible, it's merely mediocre. With Affleck serving as star, writer, producer, and director, it seems he bit off way more than he could effectively chew for a film of this scale.
After serving in The Great War and seeing enough blood and guts to live a lifetime, Irish-American Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) returns home to his native Boston an outlaw. Taking advantage of illegal booze, Joe and his gang roll speakeasies and gambling dens for quick cash. Everything's going great. Even his cop father Thomas (Brendan Gleeson) can't pull anything to pin on him. Joe's only problem is the beautiful Emma Gould (Sienna Miller). Falling for the girlfriend of a gangster is bad news, but when it's the main squeeze of Irish gangster Albert White (Robert Glenister), that's a life-threatening problem. After a job goes bad and White beats Joe within an inch of his life, Joe ends up doing a three-year stretch in prison emerging thirsty for vengeance.
Backed by Italian mafioso Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), Joe reassembles his old crew and heads down to Ybor City, Florida to control the rum coming out of Cuba and various other vices. By falling in love with the beautiful Graciela (Zoe Saldana), Joe finds himself in bed with the Cuban syndicate - who want a larger piece of the action. As Joe tries to expand the Pescatore operations, he runs head to head against Albert White who has total control of the Miami territories. With this much booze, gambling, women, and money at stake, there is only room for one man and Joe aims to be the last man standing in a final fight to the death.
Live by Night is certainly a beautiful looking, well directed, written, and sharply edited film. It covers a vast expanse of time as Joe Coughlin gradually slides into a life as a gangster when he'd much rather be an outlaw who plays by his own rules. Caught between worlds, he's Irish and should naturally hate the Italian gangsters, but the Irish gangsters are the ones who betrayed him. He has a respect for law and order, yet wants to be a free-living outlaw who does things his way. It's a beautifully woven tapestry that unfortunately never quite sticks the landing. Too much bulk, not enough lean meat.
One of the issues at play is the film's time period. Starting at the end of World War I and sprawling for another decade or so, too much history happens in the middle that slows the action down with necessary but repetitive tidbits about what has happened in world affairs. Next, the film's front thirty minutes are frankly unnecessary. While we're introduced to Joe and the major players of Albert White and Maso Pescatore and Joe's history as an outlaw and his relationship with Emma, not to mention one hell of a thrilling car chase shootout sequence, we don't need it. The real story doesn't get going until Joe gets off the train in Florida. As I watched the second act start, I couldn't help but think how much more interesting and gritty this drama/thriller would have been if we started with a mysterious man in white getting off a train under the searing Florida sun hell-bent on revenge. Subplots involving Elle Fanning as a drug-addicted revivalist, her father played by Chris Cooper, and some interludes with the KKK just bloat this film to a point of nearly being out of control. If Live by Night aimed to be a simple lean and mean mobster film instead of trying to ape The Godfather, the film could have been something intensely memorable.
As the closing credits start to roll and you see one name flash up on the screen multiple times, I wondered if Ben Affleck stretched himself entirely too thin. When you first see him on screen, Affleck appears to be a big man stuffed into smaller clothes that probably would have been a better fit for his younger brother Casey. After all of his 20-Minute Batman Video Workout sessions, Affleck is just too big and bulky. He frequently looks like someone who doesn't quite know what to do with his body. Add in an evident appearance of exhaustion, Affleck himself is the film's biggest shortfall. Considering the timing of the filming of Live by Night while doing reshoots and press for Batman v. Superman and gearing up for Justice League on top of several personal issues, Ben simply should have let someone else step in front of the camera. With such divided attentions, Ben Affleck the star, writer, producer, and director created a mediocre movie. It isn't terrible. It isn't great. It's just there in the middle. It's beautiful to look at and the action sequences are terrific, but there isn't much more to it than that.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Live by Night comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. Pressed onto a Region Free BD-50 disc, the disc is housed in an eco-friendly Blu-ray case. The disc loads to a trailer for Kong: Skull Island before arriving at a static image main menu with traditional navigation options. A Digital HD voucher slip is also included.
Live by Night bursts onto Blu-ray with an absolutely gorgeous 2.40:1 1080p transfer. Shot digitally and sourced from a 4k intermediate, this is a reference-quality transfer. Detail levels are impeccable allowing you to digest everything on the screen. From facial features to period costuming to the intricate and flawless period production design work, all of it can be appreciated. Hell, even Elle Fanning's track marks are visible! Colors are richly vivid as they take on pieces of each location. Boston is drenched in blues while Florida warms things up with shades of yellows, greens, and browns. Primaries are given the full range of appreciation. Flesh tones are accurate and healthy throughout. Black levels are the real showstopper here as the film maintains a noirish quality to it with deep inky black levels and plenty of shadows. There is a notable sense of depth and dimension throughout - especially during the big car chase sequence that provides a nice three-dimensional quality to the imagery. Free of any compression artifacts or troublesome anomalies, this is a terrific transfer that could only have been made better if the film had been released on 4k UHD. Hopefully, that day may yet arrive.
Just as impressive as the image transfer is the Dolby ATMOS track supplied for this release. As I do not yet have an ATMOS setup, I can only comment on how the track defaults to a Dolby True-HD 7.1 mix - which is still a stellar experience. The imagery to the track is what really gets the blood pumping. There is sound coming at you from all directions and it sucks you right into the action. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout (aside from some troublesome fake Irish accents), and even during the film's quiet conversational moments, all channels are fully engaged giving a constant sense of immersion. The car chase and the final shootout in the hotel are prime examples of this effect. Scoring by Henry Gregson-Williams is a beautiful listen and works perfectly with the action and the drama displayed on the screen without overpowering the other audio elements. Levels are also spot on so once you've got that volume set - I suggest the louder the better - You'll be good to go. Also included is a DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix that is very good, very strong, but is notably weaker than the ATMOS mix. Obviously, if you have ATMOS you know which way to go, but if you don't the 5.1 mix will suit your needs.
Some of the bonus content offered up here may be on the frivolous side, but there is some great stuff to dig through. The commentary track and the deleted scenes are the standouts.
Director's Commentary Track: Actor, Writer, Producer and Director Ben Affleck is joined by Production Designer Jess Gonchor and DP Robert Richardson for this commentary track. It's a very interesting and conversational track as the three individuals keep the conversation moving and on point discussing all of the aspects of the film. It's worth noting that this was recorded after the theatrical release and the trio make various comments about the reception without expressly noting their displeasure at the theatrical failings. They clearly gave it their all here.
The Men of Live by Night: (HD 8:30) Very briefly do the male actors of the film get to comment about playing dress-up as gangsters in a prohibition-era movie. It's a fun but short little feature.
Angles With Dirty Faces: The Women of Live by Night: (HD 8:54) the three leading ladies of the film as well as ben Affleck and novelist Dennis Lehane discuss the thematic relevance of each character. Brief stuff, pretty surface material in all honesty.
Live by Night's Prolific Author: (HD 6:53) Novelist Dennis Lehane discusses writing the novel and seeing it transform into a film after years of development.
In Close-Up: Creating a Classic Car Chase: (HD 7:35) Another brief production tidbit, but considering it involves one of the most exciting moments of the movie, it's a worthy watch.
Deleted Scenes (With Optional Director Commentary): (HD 15:36) As the film already felt on the long side, it's easy to understand why these moments were cut. Affleck's commentary is a nice inclusion here and gives you the sense of the adaptation process as well as the final edit of a film. The biggest inclusion is Joe and Danny Reunite as it features Joe's brother Danny played by Scott Eastwood whose entire role was cut from the film.
Shoelace Tim Hickey / Last Termite
Joe and Danny Reunite
Joe and Esteban Talk About Graciela's Husband
Joe and Graciela Walk Through Tent City
Live by Night was a film with a lot of talent and even more potential. Unfortunately, the final result doesn't fully reflect the pedigree of the cast, director, and crew involved. Affleck is visibly more comfortable behind the camera than he is in front of it with this one. It's still an interesting film, but considering this is the follow-up to Affleck's Argo, it's hard not to call it a bit of a disappointment. Warner Brothers brings the film to Blu-ray in terrific order with a drop dead gorgeous reference-quality A/V presentation as well as a host of bonus features to keep fans occupied. The film itself may not be everything everyone had hoped for, but Live by Night is certainly watchable and somewhat enjoyable. Worth a look.