Ben Affleck shoots, often scores and most importantly slam dunks a seriously gripping role in his new basketball drama “The Way Back.”
Though it's chock-full of sports-movie tropes – and juggling too many at times – director Gavin O’Connor’s quiet, sobering tale is a powerful story of addiction centered on a man who needs a win in the worst way. There are plenty of scrappy underdog youngsters with hoop dreams, with Affleck as the flawed, hard-nosed new coach who teaches them grit and guts, but just when you think it’s “Hoosiers” with a hefty bar tab, O’Connor upends expectations in surprising, satisfying and not always uplifting fashion.
Jack Cunningham (Affleck) is a construction worker whose alcoholism infects every aspect of his life – he can’t even take a shower without a can of beer in the soap dish. Jack is neglecting friends, frustrating family members and hurting after a yearlong separation from his wife Angela (Janina Gavankar) when he's called to his Catholic school alma mater and asked to coach the basketball team.
The lowly squad hasn’t been a powerhouse since Jack’s legendary days on the court in the 1990s, yet with some tough love from their tattooed teacher; a new emphasis on furious defense; and a stream of curse words that makes the team chaplain blanch, the team turns its season around.
It’s the stuff that any sports-movie nut has seen before, and still, the hoops scenes are pretty nifty – O’Connor, who filmed another ragtag crew in the great “Miracle,” knows how to wring every rousing moment without going fully cornball. Character development is a problem throughout the movie, however, and especially in the beginning, as it takes a while to get to know the players with everything else going on in Jack’s life. (Add in subplots involving dad issues, college recruitment and past tragedies, and there are so many personalities you need a program.)
The best thing O’Connor does here, as he also did with the underrated “The Accountant,” is let Affleck remind us once again that he’s a first-class actor – just in case anyone forgot after his brief stint in an infamous cape and cowl.
He’s able to play Jack as both rebellious leader of men and vulnerable addict equally well: The backstory of his character is a slow burn of enormous repressed emotion, and Affleck’s best stuff comes late in the game when the audience finally understands the depths of Jack’s struggles. (The fact that Affleck himself has dealt with rehab and addiction adds another layer to his impressive performance.)
He also gets some superb scene partners, including Gavankar in an understated role as Jack’s estranged spouse, Al Madrigal as the strait-laced assistant coach and Brandon Wilson as the team’s soft-spoken best player.
“The Way Back” never relents in its full-court press on Jack’s soul, and his journey to redemption isn’t easy and is actually quite sad, especially for those expecting, say, “Coach Carter” or “Glory Road.” This is a much more affecting narrative in how it tackles alcoholism and despair, a grounded effort that nonetheless allows Affleck to soar.