I had high hopes for Live by Night, Ben Affleck’s latest effort as director, writer, and star. I’m a great admirer of his previous films (Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and Argo) but this one falls short, I’m sorry to say. Dennis Lehane’s sprawling crime novel, which moves from 1920s Boston to the unfamiliar setting of Tampa, Florida, must have seemed irresistible. It offers great possibilities but the result left me wanting.

I kept asking myself what was missing. The period atmosphere is rich and the characters are colorful, offering juicy parts to a number of good actors. Unfortunately I realized that the problem is Affleck himself. He’s dull. Part of this is deliberate: as he explains in his opening narration, he’s been deadened by his experiences on the front lines in World War One. As he puts it, he went in as a soldier and came home an outlaw, thriving during the Prohibition era. But the actor’s one-note performance does this movie no favors. Picture almost anyone else in the leading role as a common criminal who reluctantly aligns himself with a brutal Italian crime gang, and you can see the potential. (In bygone days, this would have been a perfect vehicle for Robert Mitchum or late-era Dick Powell.)

As a director, Affleck excels in staging chases and action scenes and this film has several that are genuinely exciting. The supporting characters are well-cast with Sienna Miller as a mobster’s glamorous moll, Brendan Gleeson as Affleck’s career-cop father, an almost-unrecognizable Chris Messina as the hero’s swarthy sidekick, Chris Cooper as a Southern sheriff, Elle Fanning as an innocent girl who undergoes a transformation, and Zoe Saldana as a sexy Cuban who catches Affleck’s eye in Tampa.

These potent ingredients should add up to something more satisfying. Live by Night aspires to take its place alongside great movie crime sagas; it’s a shame the effort that went into it doesn’t pay off.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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June 2024