There have been some great sports movies that didn’t end with the hero(es) winning the big game at the end, from “Bad News Bears” to “Tin Cup” to “North Dallas Forty” to “Rocky.” But most of the titles in the genre feature buzzer-beating baskets, impossible plays, and unlikely come-from-behind victories.
However, you’ve never seen a sports movie in which a new coach takes over a team that’s not full of misfits, but really talented athletes who have been winning almost all of their games. Yet, under his direction, they go into the tank and lose for the rest of the season. That is not the recipe for a crowd-pleasing story.
Which is why you won’t see that plot in “The Way Back.”
Instead, you get Ben Affleck as Jack Cuninngham, a construction worker who drinks way too much. He has booze in his travel mug at work. When he’s off the job, he goes to a local bar and knocks back shots and beers with the usual group of losers until he’s so drunk he has to be helped home. On top of that, Jack’s personal life remains in shambles. His 8-year-old son died a couple of years ago. His wife left him and is now involved with another man.
Seeing Affleck as a nearly 50-year-old construction worker made me think of him as the grown-up version of Chuckie, his character in “Good Will Hunting,” the one Will (Matt Damon) leaves behind to see about a girl (Minnie Driver). I can easily see the connection between the two hard-hats, putting in tough days on a job site and then heading for the neighborhood watering hole to drown their sorrows in beer after beer.
When the priest in charge of his old Catholic high school asks him to step in for the basketball coach who just had a heart attack, Jack’s not interested, but after downing a case of beer, works up the courage to take the job. Naturally, the team is lousy, having won just a single game all season, but under the direction of Jack — who was the MVP when he went to that school a quarter-century ago — they turn things around.
Unfortunately, while Jack can motivate the boys to get their act together, he can’t make it happen for himself, particularly after an incident that reminds him of his own kid. It’s in those scenes where Affleck gets to show off his dramatic abilities, but writer/director Gavin O’Connor never really allows us to see the pain that’s ripping the man apart. It’s a shame, because Affleck can be so good (e.g. “Argo,” “Gone Girl,” and two underrated movies from 2016, “The Accountant” and “Live By Night”). Worse, “The Way Back” looks quite dark throughout, perhaps to match Jack’s somber (but not sober) mood.
The actors portraying the young basketballers are all quite good and look like they can really play, giving the game and practice scenes the same kind of authenticity as those in David Anspaugh’s “Hoosiers” (1986). Kudos also to two adult members of the supporting cast: former “Daily Show” correspondent Al Madrigal as the math teacher who serves as the team’s assistant coach; and Michaela Watkins (who’s been consistently good on TV in “The Unicorn,” “Get Shorty,” and “Transparent” — and even better in the movie “Brittany Runs A Marathon”) as Jack’s sister. Another element of “The Way Back” I enjoyed was the musical score, which eschews big, chest-pumping songs (a la “Eye Of The Tiger”) in favor of a piano theme that accompanies without overwhelming.
“The Way Back” is the story of a man who can lead a team to greater success than he can find for himself. I suppose, in that way, it combines both the winner and loser elements of traditional sports movies. But it only earns a so-so recommendation from me.
I give “The Way Back” a 5 out of 10.