Film reviews round-up: Live By Night, Underworld: Blood Wars, The Young Offenders

Ben Affleck's latest directorial project, the newest instalment of Kate Beckinsale's long-running vampire franchise, and an Irish shaggy dog tale

Geoffrey Macnab
Wednesday 11 January 2017 12:41 GMT
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Live By Night (15)

★★★☆☆

Dir: Ben Affleck, 129 mins, starring: Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Sienna Miller

There is always room for a well-crafted new gangster movie, but Live By Night is as clunky in its exposition as it is gorgeous in its craftsmanship. Ben Affleck, who scripted, produced and directed as well as starred, gives a strangely stilted performance as the mobster hero who’ll behave like a hardened killer one moment and like a secular saint the next.

Based on the 2012 novel by Dennis Lehane, the film retreads some very familiar territory. We’re in the roaring 1920s, at the beginning of the prohibition era. It’s a world of spats and speakeasies; of machine guns and showgirls. The twist here, a very slight one, is that the setting is Boston, not Chicago, Atlantic City or New York.

Joe Coughlin (Affleck) has returned from the First World War. As he tells us in the opening voice-over, he signed up “a soldier” and came back an “outlaw.” A lengthy montage sequence of black-and-white archive photos of the dead and wounded from the trenches is included. If Joe has lost his moral bearings (these images are clearly intended to tell us), he can hardly be blamed. He has seen so much slaughter already that not even the most hideous crimes committed by Irish mobster Albert White (Robert Glenister) or his Italian rival Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) faze him in the slightest.

Back in Boston, Joe is a small-time hustler, robbing poker games. In one daring heist, he and his friends steal cash from the mob bosses themselves. It’s here that he first encounters the beautiful but dangerous Irish femme fatale Emma Gould (Sienna Miller). When he stuffs a sock in her mouth during the robbery, he promptly falls in love with her. She reciprocates, or seems to. They begin a torrid, secret affair. She’s a gangster’s moll. If her official boyfriend Albert White finds out about it, they’ll almost certainly be killed.

Early on, the film is at its strongest. There’s an explosive car chase in 1920s vehicles, lots of carefully choreographed but very bloody violence, and Affleck and Sienna Miller work well together on screen. At times, Live By Night plays like a 1920s version of Affleck’s 2010 crime drama The Town, with characters facing many of the same dilemmas. It helps that the cast features plenty of redoubtable character actors.

Live By Night - Trailer

Prominent among them is Brendan Gleason as Joe’s police commissioner father, Thomas Coughlin, a hardened, street-wise Boston cop who dotes on his son even as he sees him fall into the gangster world. Gleason plays the character in the same bluff and humorous way as he did the Irish policeman in The Guard.

This is a very glossy looking film, beautifully shot by Robert Richardson in golden-hued colours and with lovingly detailed production design. Even when mobsters are thrown to their death from skyscrapers or shot or have their throats cut, they conspire to die with a certain elegance. Affleck himself makes multiple changes in costume and never loses his poise, even when he is being beaten up and kicked so hard between the legs that he vomits.

Every character and situation seems vaguely familiar from earlier gangster yarns, whether Warner Bros films of the 1930s, The Godfather, Billy Bathgate or (more recently) Boardwalk Empire. That’s not the problem: you’d expect a crime film like this to pay homage to its predecessors. What undermines the film is the very baggy storytelling structure. Affleck seems caught in a no man’s land between feature film and HBO-style TV box-set drama.

He wants the film to have an epic quality and fills it with dozens of supporting characters and sub-plots – but then doesn’t have the time in a two-hour movie to do them justice. As a director, Affleck has an eye for the poetic image. There are a lot of big, moody close-ups of the gangsters in their moments of doubt and terror as well as shots of burning cars and beautiful sunsets. Some of these, though, are held too long.

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Alliances shift in sometimes baffling fashion. One moment Joe is allied to Albert White and madly in love with Emma. The next Albert is his arch-enemy and he is in league with the Italians as he heads down to Florida to seek revenge against Albert. Besotted by Emma in the first half of the movie, he is equally enamoured of the beautiful Cuban businesswoman Graciela (Zoe Saldana) in the second.

Like Nucky Thompson in Boardwalk Empire, Joe is a civic-minded gangster with an abhorrence of racism. A considerable part of the story is given over to his battle with the Tampa branch of the Ku Klux Klan. The film also deals at some length with Joe’s relationship with Figgis (the excellent Chris Cooper), the Florida police chief who initially welcomes him but grows to hate him.

Figgis’s daughter, Loretta (Elle Fanning), is a reformed drug addict who becomes a populist preacher. As she holds forth on the evil of casinos in front of a vast congregation, she rekindles memories of the mountebank played by Jean Simmons in Elmer Gantry.

In the latter stages, Live By Night grows ever more absurd. Plot twists and reversal of fortunes are thrown into the mix. Everybody betrays everybody else. Alongside the bloodletting, a strong vein of mawkishness creeps into the storytelling. Joe’s attempts at being both Bugsy Siegel-like gangster kingpin and bland, folksy all-American family man become increasingly improbable. The tension dissipates and the film loses the edge that no self-respecting gangster yarn can really do without.

Underworld: Blood Wars (15)

★★☆☆☆

Dir: Anna Foerster, 91 mins, starring: Kate Beckinsale, Theo James, Lara Pulver, Charles Dance, Tobias Menzies, Bradley James

Blood Wars is the fifth installment in the Underworld series. It is likely to prove largely incomprehensible to anyone who hasn't seen the previous four.

Vampire heroine Selene (Kate Beckinsale) provides a voiceover that is supposed to bring us up to speed but only serves to obfuscate matters further. She is on the run, chased both by her fellow vampires for treachery and by their arch-enemies, the so-called Lycans. Her daughter Eve is missing. The Lycans hope Selene will lead them to her and that they will be able to tap her blood, which will give them yet more powers. Dressed in black, a dab hand at martial arts, Selene is more of an Emma Peel-like figure than a Dracula one.

One problem with the living dead is that they seldom die. Selene here is certainly in no mood for dying. Stabbed, shot, poisoned, buried beneath the ice, she always comes bouncing back up again to life. Disconcertingly, Beckinsale plays her in the same slightly sardonic fashion that she did the scheming, social climbing villainess in Whit Stillman’s Jane Austen adaptation, Love And Friendship.

Underworld: Blood Wars - Trailer 2

The plotting is sheer hokum and owes a large debt to Game Of Thrones. The presence of Charles Dance as a patriarchal vampire leader adds to the sense that we may have strayed into a George RR Martin adaptation in which all the characters have funny teeth. The villain Marius (Tobias Menzies) is also a Game Of Thrones alumnus, although he is probably better known as the sneering Englishman, Black Jack, tormenting the Jacobites in TV’s Outlander.

For obvious reasons, the film is on the murky side – the vampires tend to turn to ash whenever exposed to daylight. The dashing hero David (Theo James) is the only one who can survive a blast of sun. By any objective measure, the film is utterly preposterous but it is also quite fun in its own B-movie like way. Lara Pulver registers strongly as the voluptuous and treacherous Semira - she dresses and behaves like Margaret Lockwood in old British melodramas like The Wicked Lady and The Man In Grey.

The Young Offenders (15)

★★★★☆

Dir: Peter Foott, 83 mins, starring: Alex Murphy, Chris Walley, Hilary Rose, Dominic MacHale, PJ Gallagher

The Young Offenders is a hoot – another in the long list of Irish shaggy dog story-style movies made in recent years. Its lead characters are two delinquent 15-year-old kids from Cork who become embroiled in a mad Whisky Galore-like scheme to retrieve cocaine which has been washed up on shore.

The kids, Conor MacSweeney and Jock Murphy, are played in very winning fashion by Alex Murphy and Chris Walley. They’re from troubled backgrounds. Jock is a bicycle thief who combines cunning with extreme gawky ineptitude. Conor is naive and easily led but with an infinite capacity for mischief. However idiotic or criminal their behaviour, we know that they are good lads at heart.

Writer-director Peter Foott fills the film with slapstick and with plenty of scabrous, witty dialogue. The humour (the jokes about masturbation and “wilderpooing”) can be prurient. Some of the plotting (especially in the scenes involving the club-footed drug dealer with the nail gun) seems on the random side. The film, though, has the feel of a ruder, coarser, Irish version of Huckleberry Finn.

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