It is often tempting to look at the possible influences that a particularly derivative-feeling movie has drawn on, to see the superior versions of a standard or rote narrative. Live by Night is no exception; to this reviewer the film almost reads as a clumsy marriage between Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, in overall style and milieu, and Miami Vice, if Colin Farrell’s character was on the other side of the law. Yes, the film is adapted from the novel of the same name written by Dennis Lehane, but there is an undeniable urge to compare this limp, lifeless work to its better examples.
There are, of course, many other and better examples. Live by Night is an extraordinarily by-the-book gangster film set in during Prohibition, detailing the rise to power of Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck, who also directed and wrote the adapted screenplay) in first Boston and then Tampa. Herein lies the first fatal mistake of the film: Affleck structures the first third of the film that takes place in Boston as a kind of prologue, briefly introducing Joe lying in a hospital bed before moving back seemingly only a few months back in time. The Boston section as a whole is thus rendered moot, and the film feels too rushed to fully luxuriate in the urban grime that it attempts to evoke, especially in a mildly thrilling Model T chase.