Director: Gavin O’Connor
Writer: Brad Ingelsby
Stars: Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Janina Gavankar
There are lots of similar sports movies like “The Way Back“. Moralistic stories about how a trainer manages to bring a floundering team to unprecedented heights. Preferably, the team consists of a few foul-mouthed hotheads who want to impress the others by acting tough. Usually, they have a talent for the sport they practice, but lack of discipline makes them miss constancy. To the annoyance of the appointed coach at that moment. Of course, they are allergic to any type of authoritarian behaviour. Until the new coach comes up. Preferably an old sports star who can look back on a successful sports career and who comes to the rescue by using clever pedagogical techniques. First of all, he gives each of the team members a figurative kick in the butt. Suspends the most rebellious pain in the ass (who of course comes back crawling to ask if he can be re-included in the team because the sport is vital for him). Then the gruelling training sessions begin in such a way that this bunch of misfits finally starts winning games and slowly propel them to stardom. You saw it in “Coach Carter”, “Slap Shot” and to a lesser extent in “Major League”. “The Way Back” follows this same scenario. Only here the coach is also struggling with his personal demons.
I’m not a real Ben Affleck fan. Not that I think he’s a bad actor. Maybe the movie choices he made were a bit unfortunate. With “Daredevil” as the most terrible career choice, in my opinion. But here Affleck shows that he does have acting talent. Perhaps personal life experiences are the reason why he was able to empathise with the role of coach Jack easily. A tormented person who lost everything after a tragic event and sought refuge in drinking. Something Affleck has experience with since he has already admired the inside of a rehabilitation centre several times. Probably because of this that the scenes during which he carelessly drinks, look so realistic. As well as the way he behaves when he’s not in a bar. The manipulation, the sneaking around, and the search for excuses. Typical behaviour of an addict trying to hide his weakness. “The Way Back” tries to portray this addiction meticulously. If you see the umpteenth beer can disappear from the fridge while a spare one is already put in the freezer to stay cold, you as a viewer know that Jack is not a social drinker but a problem drinker with a fixed routine.
Like many other film productions, “The Way Back” has been disadvantaged by the Corona pandemic. Had the original release date not been shifted from late 2019 to March this year, the damage would have been limited. Hence Warner Bros’ decision to release this movie directly on various platforms such as iTunes and Prime video among others. Now, I myself don’t consider it a requirement to watch “The way back” in a cinema. Apart from the admirable acting of Affleck, this film is nothing more than an average film that doesn’t impress in terms of originality. It seems as if a pre-printed checklist has been used for this type of film. A group of young people with a wrong attitude and who, as a basketball team, wallows in the role of the underdog. Check! Ex basketball player whose life is in a downward spiral. Check! Miraculous revival of the despised basketball team. Check! Family tragedy that ruined the coach’s life. Check! Obviously a relapse happens. Check! Once again a miraculous resurgence leading to a happy ending. Check! It feels like a three-pointer every time a check is placed on this list.
In short. The film won’t win a prize in the category of originality. The already well-trodden paths of previously released sports dramas are followed too carefully. But what Ben Affleck demonstrates here (and I know I’m repeating myself) makes that this movie effortlessly exceeds the average. Only the way and period in which he defeated his demons, felt romanticised. And finally, you should not confuse this film with the 2010 film of the same name about a Polish prisoner who could escape from a Russian gulag with some fellow sufferers. The only similarity the Ben Affleck film has with the latter is that the road followed by the group of young people is also full of obstacles. And giving up is also not an option. So if you run into it anywhere on a VOD channel, give it a try. It’s not really a waste of time.