The Way Back should have been a straight up slam dunk to be one of my favourite films of this year. It had so many things that I enjoy in its corner – there is the fact that I adore sports movies such as Varsity Blues and Coach Carter and then there is the Ben Affleck factor. Yes, I am a huge Affleck fan and have been ever since I fell in love with Kevin Smith’s movies way back in High School.
But there is something that majorly goes wrong with The Way Back and that thing made me feel like I was driving a sports car but unable to get out of second gear. The most disappointing thing about all of that though is it is an error that I feel could easily have been solved with a simple re-write of the script.
At the very heart of The Way Back is a film that could easily have been an Oscar winner. Affleck (Argo) plays Jack Cunningham a man whose life reads like a character from a Bruce Springsteen song. During High School he was a basketball phenomenon and it seemed like his history was written in the stars – he was going to be one of the greatest NBA players of all time. Flash-forward a couple of decades and Jack is now a faded man who works hard and drinks himself into oblivion every night.
Jack is given a shot at redemption though when the Headmaster at the Catholic school he attended, Father Devine (John Aylward – North Country,) contacts him and asks him to take over the coaching duties of the school’s basketball team – a team that now dwindles at the bottom of the league and is largely known as a laughing stock to the teams they play against. Despite a lot of hesitation Jack accepts the role and while the skills are still there so is his alcoholism and his resentment of the world that causes outbursts and chronic swearing that worries Father Mark Whelan (Jeremy Radin – Shark Week) who is charged with watching over the team and Jack.
The Way Back should have left me on the same emotional high that Coach Carter left me on years ago. The difference is that with Coach Carter the film was filled with inspiring speeches by Samuel L. Jackson while the writer gave us, the audience, an opportunity to get to know the kids on the team. They were all given characterisation and the result was we all cared about them.
With The Way Back we never get that opportunity. Yes we are introduced to characters like Marcus (Melvin Gregg – Snowfall) and Brandon (Brandon Wilson – Beyond The Lights) but we are never given an in-depth introduction into what makes them the way they are until it is much too late. The result is for the most part I just saw them as teenagers with a bad attitude who were wasting their God given talent.
I felt it was the same for Jack as a character as well. I am sure that screenwriter Brad Ingelsby (Run All Night) thought it was cute and artistic the way he kept the true story of Jack’s secret from the audience, but to me it felt like the major flaw of the film. Most of the time I was frustrated that Jack was passing up the great opportunities that life had given him in order to simply just get drunk each night. That frustration would have been eliminated if he had given us glimpses of the emotional issues that made Jack the way he was instead of holding those cards close to heart before finally springing them on the audience.
The one thing that does save The Way Back and makes it worth a second viewing is the acting performance of one Mr. Affleck. I am not just saying this as a devoted Affleck fan, but he is in Oscar winning form here. He is totally believable as a former sports star who has hit rock bottom and he delivers some truly emotional scenes that do have an effect on you as you are watching them. Many actors would struggle to deliver the pure emotion that he can generate in a scene on his own fuelled by drunken outbursts but his work here was enough to cause a tear to well up in my eyes more than once. Affleck of course knew why his character was the way he was… we sadly didn’t.
I really got the feeling throughout the film that with Affleck in this kind of form this film could have Oscar-winner written all over it if only a few minor re-writes had occurred in order to make me care more about some of the characters at hand. This is one I will certainly re-visit though just to see Affleck deliver a full lesson in character acting.