There’s been no shortage of high-profile Hollywood comebacks or ‘renaissances’ in the last few years, but, even in a crowded field, Ben Affleck’s story has stood out, having to ‘recover’ from being cast as Batman, one of western cinema’s most enduring and high-profile roles. His stint in Zack Snyder’s DC Universe ended up derailing a very promising period in his career, one that had brought him Oscar triumph with Argo and a career best performance for David Fincher in Gone Girl. The Way Back marks Affleck’s first major lead role since hanging up the cape and cowl and is an enjoyable, if generic, reminder of what he’s really capable of.
Reuniting Affleck with his The Accountant director Gavin O’Connor, The Way Back is, fittingly, itself a comeback story. At a real dead end in his life, alcoholic construction worker Jack Cunningham (Affleck) finds a renewed sense of purpose in his life after returning to his old high school to coach their floundering basketball team. Brad Ingelsby’s script juggles these two elements – recovery from addiction and a classic underdog sports story – without ever getting them to quite cohere, but each of them is engaging enough on their own. This is mostly down to Affleck who, despite the surface heaviness of the role, seems lighter on his feet here than he has in years.
It’s a performance reminiscent of Bradley Cooper in 2018’s A Star Is Born, finding both the gruff charm and abrasive edges of a self-destructive man long past the point of actively wanting to get better. Off-screen, Affleck has been the picture of male ennui until very recently, and he and O’Connor smartly channel this into an affecting portrait of someone having to relearn hope and positivity. The supporting characters make less of an impression, and the female roles are predictably thin, but Affleck plays well off the kids that make up the basketball team.
This team’s journey hardly holds any surprises, The Way Back following the underdog sports movie formula to the letter, but that doesn’t mean the games aren’t exciting. Affleck shines in the sweary, high-energy team talks, and the action itself is well shot by DOP Eduard Grau, whose work is really excellent throughout, managing to keep the very grey colour palette from ever becoming flat or lifeless. The score is mostly great too, even if it does step in to ‘overly insistent’ territory from time to time.
O’Connor’s unfussy direction lets Affleck take the lead, confirming that those years of superhero-ing haven’t diminished his dramatic chops, and it’s as a showcase for its star that The Way Back really succeeds. Whether he’s drunkenly eating an awful-looking burrito or inspiring his team to unlikely success, Affleck more than makes up for the flaky plotting – a side story about terminally ill kids is weirdly half-baked – and it’s a genuine pleasure to see him enjoying himself in a role again.