The Way Back, starring Ben Affleck as a basketball coach struggling with alcoholism while he guides a team of underdogs to the high school playoffs, hit theaters this past weekend. As is increasingly the case with Gavin O’Connor movies, it seems destined to become the kind of movie a handful of people on Twitter call “underrated” in six months.
It currently sits at a solid 85% on RottenTomatoes, from critics who praised Affleck’s comeback performance and O’Connor’s committed direction. Scott Tobias for The Ringer called O’Connor, who previously directed Miracle and Warrior, among others, “The next great sports movie director.”
Ignoring that RottenTomatoes is based on a faulty binary, 85% sounds about right for The Way Back — a solid B. Affleck turns in a committed performance as an ex-basketball player struggling with alcohol while dealing with a personal tragedy (you’ll never guess what it is! Just kidding, you will), whipping a team of undertalented losers to a winning season through his unorthodox methods. I mean, sort of unorthodox. Actually one of The Way Back‘s twists is that Ben Affleck’s methods aren’t that unorthodox. Anyway, if you’ve seen an underdog sports movie before, you get this one.
The Way Back is, to some extent, a collection of clichés. But O’Connor does his job and makes us believe them in the moment. He directs The Way Back with clear-eyed earnestness, and the actors (including a nice-to-see Al Madrigal) do the same. A big reason why it’s not intolerably predictable is that O’Connor (who also co-wrote, with Out of The Furnace’s Brad Inglesby) is combining two genres — the art house drama about a man struggling with alcohol and personal tragedy, and the multiplex-friendly uplifting sports story. Sports stories do have a way of justifying cliché. Listen to any sports announcer alive for evidence of this.
But the genre mash also works against The Way Back in the end. It completes its arc as an adult drama about trauma (a traum-dram, if you will) in a reasonably satisfying way, but without ever hitting the kind of crescendo you expect of an inspirational sports movie. Without it the film left me a little empty. I can happily swallow clichés for a movie that makes me want to run through a wall at the end, that’s why the sports movie formula works so well. Being happy for Ben Affleck’s sober new life doesn’t have quite the same effect.
The Way Back’s ultimate failure as a sports movie reminded me that Gavin O’Connor’s best movie isn’t about sports: his best movie is The Accountant, starring Ben Affleck as an autistic accountant assassin (which, like The Way Back, also comes from Warner Bros). The Accountant is the film in which O’Connor’s ability to deliver straight-faced exposition of preposterous plot points — that Ben Affleck’s character only eats food in threes, listens to heavy metal for exactly 20 minutes every day to unwind, and balances the books for drug lords in order to bankroll his collection of rare baseball cards — really sings.
It seems like every action movie is a dress rehearsal for a franchise these days. Hell, even Spenser Confidential, Peter Berg’s Netflix action-comedy starring Mark Wahlberg as the Serpico of Boston (“what’s this fa, fa bein’ an hawnest cawp?”), threw away its last chance to succeed as an extremely low-stakes streamer just so it could hint that maybe there will be some sequels to come. Hey, maybe focus on making us enjoy the movie we’re watching first? In this world, why the hell don’t we have a sequel to The Accountant, one of the best dumb action movies of the last five years (co-starring the always wonderful Jon Bernthal as Affleck’s brother) and the perfect setup for a franchise?
In The Way Back, Gavin O’Connor has made another reasonably entertaining sports movie. I would trade every single one of them for just one more chance to see Ben Affleck misunderstand jokes in his favorite Sriracha t-shirt. It wouldn’t even have to be a literal sequel — hell, hire Mark Wahlberg as a killer mechanic with Asperger’s. C’mon, Hollywood, you owe us that much.