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Live by Night

Ben Affleck writes a love letter to pulp filmmaking in this epic drama

Ben Affleck plays a rising mob boss with Chris Messina as his right-hand man. <<© Warner Bros.>>

Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck: Suicide Squad) is an outlaw. A veteran of The Great War, Coughlin returns home to Boston swearing to never follow orders again. He turns to armed robbery, vexes his police chief father and gets the interest of the city’s warring Italian and Irish mobs.
    Coughlin isn’t interested in joining a gang, but he is interested in the head Irish mobster’s girl, Emma (Sienna Miller: The Lost City of Z). Joe gets out with a smashed face and a few years in jail. Emma doesn’t fair so well.
    Bent on revenge, Coughlin signs up with the Italian mob.
    He sets up a comfortable life on the outskirts of Tampa, building a small empire as he outsmarts the law and rival criminal concerns.
    Just as he assembles the life he wants, it’s challenged. The Italians fret over an Irishman running such a large chunk of their business. The Ku Klux Klan chapter despises Joe for his Cuban girlfriend and association with minority groups. The holy rollers of Tampa want to cleanse the city.
    Based on an epic Prohibition novel by Dennis Lehane, Live by Night isn’t as beautifully detailed or steeped in history as the novel, but it’s a decent CliffsNotes. Affleck also directed and wrote the screenplay, paring down a story that spans decades and two very different cities and focusing almost solely on Coughlin.
    Though it keeps the running time down, this choice also knocks some of the nuance out of Joe, turning him from a morally ambiguous gangster into a tough-guy hero.
    Coughlin is interesting, and Affleck’s performance fine, but he gains primacy at the expense of other performers. Chris Messina (The Mindy Project), as Coughlin’s right-hand man, for one.
    Lavish sets, attractive people and enough action to keep your blood pumping, Live by Night is a tribute to the pulpy crime dramas of the 1930s and ’40s. If you like a plot-heavy tale with quippy dialogue, sexy dames and steel-jawed toughs, you’ll enjoy this film.

Good Drama • R • 128 mins.