Ben Affleck was reportedly inspired by classic Warner Brother gangster movies — a body of work that includes Public Enemy, Little Caesar and The Roaring Twenties — when he took on this adaptation of a Dennis Lehane crime novel as screenwriter, director and star.

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This article was published 14/1/2017 (1960 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Ben Affleck was reportedly inspired by classic Warner Brother gangster movies — a body of work that includes Public Enemy, Little Caesar and The Roaring Twenties — when he took on this adaptation of a Dennis Lehane crime novel as screenwriter, director and star.

Of course, Affleck’s film bears little resemblance to those movies. At more than two hours long, the leisurely paced, exquisitely photographed action sprawls from Boston to Florida. The crime empire depicted is a sprawl too, encompassing the Irish mob, Italian rum-runners and the Ku Klux Klan.

Affleck’s character, Joe Coughlin, describes himself as an "outlaw," as distinguished from a gangster. He comes home from the senseless fighting of the First World War with an embittered view of the world and no compunction to play by the rules in the era of Prohibition. As the son of a disapproving police inspector (Brendan Gleeson), he enjoys only a little wiggle room in the justice system, so that his participation in a bungled bank heist only nets him three years imprisonment instead of life.

He exits prison feeling responsible for the demise of Emma (Sienna Miller), the mistress he surreptitiously shared with Irish crime boss Albert White (Robert Glenister). His only shot at vengeance comes from Italian bootlegger Pescatore (Remo Girone), who assigns Coughlin to look after his booming rum-running business in Florida, where he would be in a position to hurt White’s competing business.

In Florida, Coughlin, employing his loyal partner in crime Dion (Chris Messina), proves to be a skilled gangster after all, negotiating turf with the practical local police chief Figgis (Chris Cooper), working out a deal with Cuban suppliers and ruthlessly contending with impediments brought up by the Klan.

Along the way, he falls in love with Graciela (Zoe Saldana), a Cuban woman concerned with doing good and duly worried that Coughlin won’t be able to sustain his lack of cruelty in the face of his mobster responsibilities.

That quality is put to the test when his boss, eager to build a gambling palace in the Florida keys, orders him to do something about Figgis’s daughter, Loretta (Elle Fanning), an ex-junkie whose new-found evangelical crusading puts the casino in jeopardy.

That character is especially interesting. One expects Loretta to be stamped from the template of Aimee Semple McPherson, that era’s evangelist, but she proves to be the rare religious character not easily pigeonholed as either zealot or fraud.

That speaks well of Affleck — the screenwriter — in demonstrating maturity by offering up more nuanced characters than we generally expect from the average gangster movie.

Still, that maturity doesn’t mitigate the shortcomings of the film’s star. Affleck’s biggest mistake was casting himself as Joe. The actor is tall and handsome and his screen persona is typically reserved, nothing like the fiery Cagneys and Robinsons of the era he purports to love.

Coughlin is fierce, yet intelligent, ruthless yet soulful. A character like this would have been right up the alley of Humphrey Bogart in his prime or a contemporary actor along the lines of Michael Shannon. Affleck is just too stolid onscreen and his presence diminishes what might have otherwise been an excellent addition to the genre.

randall.king@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @FreepKing

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Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.