Title: The Way Back
Describe This Movie In One Married... with Children Quote:
AL BUNDY: Let me tell you something, I served my country: I played high school football. Four touchdowns in one game, yet I'm not exempt from state and federal taxes. Is this how you treat us heroes?
Brief Plot Synopsis: You can't go home again, but I guess you can [coach] there.
Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: 3 Mr. Moms out of 5.
Tagline: "Every loss is another fight."
Better Tagline: "What if we remade Hoosiers but combined Gene Hackman's and Dennis Hopper's characters?"
Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck), a former Catholic high school basketball star, is given a chance to break his everyday alcoholic cycle when he's offered a job coaching his old team. He reluctantly accepts, and after some early missteps starts to mold the inexperienced squad into something approaching competitiveness. But will past tragedy ruin his triumphant comeback? Can he overcome his demons? Have you ever watched any of these movies?
"Critical" Analysis: Not to make associations with a different (better) movie, but is being presented with a coaching position by your former priest the Catholic Church equivalent of an offer you can't refuse?
Director Gavin O'Connor has worked with Affleck before (The Accountant), but has found just as much success with sports stories (Warrior, Miracle) as he has with Frank Castle on the spectrum. And combining the inspirational with a role that's precisely what Affleck needed to separate himself from the troubled legacy of the DCEU is a pretty winning formula.
Even then,The Way Back zags when we expect it to zig, and if you were afraid the trailer shows you everything, think again. We're also thrown into Cunningham's life with none of the usual backstory, leaving us to wonder what brought our hero to this sorry state of morning shower beers and nips of gin at his construction job.
O'Connor and screenwriter Brad Ingelsby subvert the genre in other ways. It's not a spoiler to say that coaching — and winning — gives Cunningham a renewed sense of purpose, just not enough to completely clean up his act. His (at first) unspoken tragedy is too profound for that, and holding back on the reveal keeps our attention.
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It also doesn't hurt that The Way Back is barely a basketball movie. The high school team and its struggles provide a comforting backdrop for Cunningham's struggles, but there's surprisingly little actual game action, and the few side arcs involving players are solved in rather abrupt fashion.
Otherwise, all the expected sports tropes are in place: the inspirational mid-game speech, Rob Simonsen's crescendoing score, the last second shot. These, along with the daddy issues that are O'Connor's bread and butter, are employed to great effect.
This is also where casting Affleck comes to bear. Cunningham's darkness is made more poignant by the actor's own real-life woes. And for that reason, this may well be his most impressive performance to date. At 47, Affleck realistically has years of romantic leading man potential ahead of him ("Becky" Affleck would currently be cast as a grandmother), but the schlubby, barely holding it together Cunningham seems to fit him at this stage.
The sports movie genre is a crowded one, and it takes a lot to break into the lofty ranks of the truly great. The Way Back isn't great, but O'Connor's skill at skewing our perceptions and Affleck's raw emotion ensure it still deserves a spot on the podium.