Live by Night
Directed by: Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Chris Messina
Rated: R for strong violence, language throughout and some sexuality/nudity
2 hrs. 8 mins.

Who could imagine? Ben Affleck. Boston. Gangsters. I suppose, given Boston’s checkered history and Affleck’s own love for Boston films (The Town, Gone Girl), it was inevitable that he ended up in Live by Night.

The problem is, Affleck is stepping into the shadows of some very big films that have already been down this road. Think Godfather and Goodfellas, even The Departed. Pretty tough competition to live up to. Nonetheless, Live by Night wants to be classic in that sense and works hard at it. And yet . . . and yet . . .

When young Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) volunteers to serve in World War I, he’s stationed in war-torn France and soon learns what following orders gets him. He swears, if he ever survives the war, he’ll never follow orders again.

When he does return to Boston, he decides to eke out a living robbing banks. Dangerous work, but he likes his so-called freedom. One day, after he pulls a heist on a group of Irish gangsters playing poker, he gets a visit from Albert White (Robert Glenister), the Boston Irish gangster running liquor. White gives him a choice: Join his gang or die. Joe goes to work for White. As a reward, he steals time with the boss’ girlfriend, Emma Gould (Sienna Miller).

Then it all goes to hell. Joe turns his own bank robbery. Emma betrays him to White, and before Joe can whistle Yankee Doodle, he’s beaten to a pulp and thrown in prison. Given a shorter sentence, mind you, thanks to his police chief father Thomas Coughlin (Brendan Gleeson). Still, he seethes at being sold down the river.

To get his revenge, Joe volunteers with Boston’s Italian Godfather, Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Pescatore sends Joe and his best friend, Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina), down to Tampa to shore up his rum-running operations. Joe smells opportunity and revenge, especially since being in Tampa puts him in direct competition with White. So what if he makes a little money while squeezing his enemy?

Joe eagerly takes on the role of businessman and entrepreneur, and eventually husband (to Zoe Saldana’s Graciela) and father. All of which only further complicates his life — his quest for freedom, his need for respectability, his belief that he’s just a nice guy in a dirty business.

There are some things to appreciate about this film. Live by Night has a top-notch cast as well as Oscar-winning director of photography Robert Richardson (Hugo), Oscar-nominated production designer Jess Gonchor (True Grit), Oscar-winning editor William Goldenberg (Argo) and Oscar-nominated costume designer Jacqueline West (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). The production qualities of Live by Night reflect their skills. It’s stylish, with more suits to show than Hugo Boss, and beautifully reflects the night-and-day contrast between hardscrabble Boston and Tampa orange.

Affleck himself, as writer, director and actor, shows off his talents admirably.

The problem lies with the story itself, and whether you’re willing to believe that a man involved in murder, booze running, extortion and robbery can have the type of reflective soul that Joe Coughlin shares in the film’s narrative.

Joe would like for you to believe this, and indeed, even amid his criminal career, he shows some decency, especially when he refuses to kill his evangelist tormentor, Loretta Figgis (Elle Fanning), after she manages to scuttle Joe’s plans for a casino.

This is where Live by Night veers from its predecessors. Scorsese and Coppola, they take you to the heart of darkness. There is no fine line. Affleck tries to straddle between dark and light and give the audience a sense of hope that Joe can be redeemed, even while he destroys his competition.

Should we believe it? Live by Night leaves you pressed by that dilemma. How you answer that question will influence your opinion on whether Affleck’s effort deserves the type of respect he so voraciously seeks.