Review – I’m NOT Batman (“Live By Night”)

No, this isn’t a movie about vampires, despite what the title may imply. Based on the 2012 novel by Dennis Lehane, Ben Affleck adapted the screenplay with his own writing, producing, directing, and acting, something he’s done before with The Town and Argo, which were far superior.

Taking pages from past gangster films like Scarface, Casino, Once Upon a Time in America, The Untouchables, a little There Will Be Blood, and oh-so many film noir Cagney classics from the 40’s, Affleck has thrown caution to the wind (and any story-sense) and given us a wandering tale of a bad guy who doesn’t really want to be a bad guy. Just like Michael Corleone’s lament of, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in”, Affleck’s Joe Couglin is a crook living in 1920’s Boston. His police captain dad (Brendan Gleeson) isn’t too keen on his son’s rampaging schemes of bank robbery and pilfering from the city’s big Irish crime boss, Albert White (Robert Glenister). But hey, what kind of work can his boy and his buddies get after serving in WWI?

Joe’s also playing a very dangerous game by dating Albert’s main squeeze, the very hot Emma Gould (Sienna Miller) who, in a twist of fate, betrays Joe and almost gets him killed. Ain’t love a bitch? Anyway, after a stint in the hoosegow, Joe gets a job with Albert’s cross-town rival, Italian crime boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), for his new Florida booze operation. This IS Prohibition time, remember? So, Joe and his BFF, Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina) go to the sleepy little town of Ybor, Florida where running illegal rum to Boston turns into a gold mine for Joe. He even meets the gorgeous Cuban, Graciella Corrales (Zoe Saldana) while there and the two are instantly smitten with each other, despite he being a little, shall we say, shady.

Problems arise with a crooked sheriff (Chris Cooper), his cutsie daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning) who wants to be a Hollywood star, and some putrid KKK scum named R.D. Pruitt (Matthew Maher) wants a piece of Joe’s $$ action, or else he and his clan will wreak havoc. Ah, but greedy Pruitt get a little TOO greedy and learns the hard way that you don’t threaten gangsters! Things get back to normal with the promise of Florida’s first multi-million dollar casino on the horizon but, dang it! Looks like newbie Evangelical Loretta is leading “her people” to shout down that casino idea which, needless to say, does not sit well with Maso back home.

Joe and Dion have to ‘put things right’, and that means going back to Boston to confront Maso in a climatic third act with all the trappings of a major show-down worthy of any Godfather movie. But the road getting to this conclusion (and it’s very long epilogue) just takes forever to get there. The starting point in Boston’s ultra violent streets with the major crime going on is terrific and Affleck has a great handle on that, until he moves to Florida. From there, the tone shifts and becomes a different movie, slowing to a snails pace and meandering here and there to make your head wander. Many scenes just drag on and on and on until you beg for a hood with a Tommy gun to burst in and finish you off.

You definitely get a DeNiro/Pesci vibe going on with Affleck’s Joe and Dion, but their two characters aren’t nearly as strong or crazy enough to make the movie what it should be. Affleck’s direction is nice and simple, but has several strange moments with scenes that cut-off at the most peculiar times. Artistic flair or bad editing? You decide. Affleck as actor is very sedate here, giving a performance that’s not quite his own; Bruce Wayne/Batman is more his speed nowadays; he owns that. Messina is the real charmer here as Joe’s BFF muscle and quick-with-a-gun heat. He is both funny and deadly at the same time, while Saldana and Fanning are just lovely window dressing without any depth. You want gangster noir? Stick to the classics, my friend!       

The Roaring Twenties (1939)

I love a great gangster movie and the ones made way, way back in the 30’s and 40’s were the best. A terrific one of an average Joe going from nothing to a mob boss is this one starring two of the great names in cinema, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart.

Trying to go legit in post WWI isn’t an easy thing to do, especially with corruption everywhere you turn. Witness the case of three soldiers/buddies right after the war ends: Eddie Bartlett (Cagney), George Hally (Bogart), and Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn). They try and find work with Lloyd starting his own law practice, George becoming a bootlegger, and Eddie who, finding his old job filled, gets work as a cabbie. While unknowingly delivering a package of liquor to Panama Smith (Gladys George), Eddie is arrested (it’s Prohibition time, after all), but after a short time in jail, Eddie decides that bootlegging AND using his cab service to deliver his liquor actually pays! He hires his buddy Lloyd as his lawyer to handle his legal issues and meets Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane) at a swanky nightclub where he’s now part owner. Looks like crime does pay!

Eddie gives Jean a job singing in Henderson’s Cabaret, where Panama is hostess, and soon wants Jean as his wife, giving her an engagement ring that he asks her to hold until he’s saved up enough money to quit the criminal racket. Yeah, like THAT’S gonna happen! Eddie and his henchmen hijack a shipload of liquor belonging to fellow bootlegger Nick Brown (Paul Kelly) and discover that his other buddy, George, is in charge of the liquor shipment. George proposes that Eddie bring him in as a partner and Eddie agrees. Big mistake!

There’s more stealing of booze and this time, murder! Lives are threatened, revenge is in the air, the smell of money is everywhere, and the power-hungry Eddie and George are in a feeding frenzy. Eddie goes after Brown for revenge, but George, by now resentful with Eddie’s increasing power, tips off Brown, who sets a trap. A gunfight ensues, and Eddie kills Brown while escaping. Suspecting George’s betrayal but unable to prove it, Eddie dissolves their partnership. With the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and Eddie loses everything, forcing him sell his cab company to George for next to nothing. George, now the big cheese, mockingly leaves Eddie one cab for himself as a cruel joke.

Years go by, Eddie crawls into a bottle and, in a last ditch effort to redeem himself, goes after George when he learns that George is planning to kill Lloyd. Yeah, it doesn’t end well for most of the cast, as you can tell. An exciting and crackerjack script by Jerry Wald, Richard Macaulay, Robert Rossen and directed by Raoul Walsh, who shot literally hundreds of films. This very noir black and white film is filled with great gangster jargon and expressions so typical of the times and having Bogart and Cagney speak them is just the icing on the cinematic cake. Oh sure, there are SO many other gangster films that Cagney and Bogart both made, but this one is special because it had both of them in it!


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