Ben Affleck has some chops behind the camera: the four features under his directorial belt demonstrate as much. His screen presence can be another story, though, as evidenced in director Gavin O’Connor’s The Way Back, led by an oddly impassive performance from the former Batman as a trauma-soaked, alcoholic basketball coach. While in line with his acting career of late, Affleck’s monotony feels especially unfortunate here. He reportedly drew from his own struggles with alcoholism for the role’s visceral register, a detail he’s been bravely transparent about. But that deep pain seldom materialises, leaving us with a bland ragtag-team-of-underdogs flick that wishes it was Hoosiers.
The template is too familiar: a star athlete of yore, Affleck’s careworn Jack Cunningham gets a second shot at glory when he is asked to coach his alma mater’s hopeless team out of their losing streak. He halfheartedly accepts, building up the squad with a growing enthusiasm (and an amusingly unwelcome foul mouth), like The Damned United's vigorous Brian Clough. Except his non-stop drinking persists, confirming the worst fears of the school’s well-meaning staff, Jack’s critical sister and gently concerned ex (Michaela Watkins and Janina Gavankar, both underused).
‘From the director of The Accountant’ is hardly a ringing endorsement – that mind-numbing action-thriller was also an Affleck-starrer – but Brad Ingelsby’s screenplay is the film’s guiltiest instrument, shortchanging even the most conventional pleasures of a redemption-themed sports film. For starters, the young players never rise above tired clichés: there’s a joker, a ladies’ man, a bandana-wearing White Shadow, an immense talent with a harshly disapproving parent and so on. We crave a richer narrative of mutual growth between this ramshackle bunch and their troubled leader but we’re served only scraps.
Throughout, cinematographer Eduard Grau’s grainy, intimate lens fittingly captures Jack’s claustrophobic denial, against the backdrop of a contrastingly open California setting. But the movie misfires when it comes to pacing, revealing the source of Jack’s suffering too late, rushing through his awakening and squandering our goodwill in the process. Far from the formulaic slam dunk it could have been, The Way Back never rebounds from its gradual emotional decline.