Dark knights may come and go, but gangster movies never die. Prohibition-era hustler Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) actually doesn’t like that term — he prefers “outlaw” — though he does stick up underworld card games for money and consort with dangerous vamps like Emma (Sienna Miller). It’s because of her that he’s ready to quit all that risky business and go straight after one last job, because what could go wrong? Only everything, of course. But when a botched robbery lands him in a bad spot, there’s opportunity waiting on the other side: a one-way ticket from Boston to Tampa, where the rum-running trade suddenly has several new job openings.
So far, so Scarface (the 1932 Paul Muni original, with just a palm-treed smidge of the remake). Live by Night is clearly Affleck’s love letter to classic pulp, and almost no noir touchstone goes unturned in its two-hour-plus run: sharp-suited mafiosi, hip-swinging vixens, bloody shoot-outs, double crosses. Adapted (like his 2007 directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone) from a sprawling Dennis Lehane novel, the script, which Affleck also wrote, has a lot to chew through. It doesn’t always succeed; Live often feels like 10 pounds of narrative puppy crammed in a five-pound bag, rushing its fine cast — which includes Chris Cooper as a conflicted sheriff, Elle Fanning as a fevered young evangelist, and Zoe Saldana as the requisite second dame — through some side plots and abruptly wrapping up others. It also plays the hard-boiled game so faithfully that the genre’s guns-and-dolls tropes hardly get dusted. Instead, Affleck just films them real pretty, and gives us a story as comfortably worn and shady as an old fedora. B–