‘We need a new head coach, Jack…’
One of the major criticisms of Hollywood movies is unoriginality. If you lean too hard into existing genre tropes, you can be sure this will be called out by a slew of self satisfied critics baiting for blood. I have never really understood this. If you’re just ripping something off to make a quick buck, that’s one thing, but taking a story structure that has existed for decades and using that to tell your own story… well, that’s just art right?
Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) is a barely functioning alcoholic mired in grief and years detached from his glory days as a high school basketball star. Cajoled into coaching his former team, Jack starts to find himself through the trials and tribulations of his underdog upstarts. Assistant coach Dan (an excellent Al Madrigal) tries to keep Jack on track.
Okay. So yeah, you have seen this film before. Guy coaches local team but HE is the one who ends up learning a lesson. It’s Mighty Ducks. It’s Coach Carter. But the reason this story keeps being told is because it works. Ben Affleck is a guy who has been finished and made a comeback more times than anyone else in Hollywood. He has survived Gigli and Pearl Harbour. He is the face that launched a thousand memes. He also continues to struggle with various issues in his private life, including alcohol addiction. In short, he is the perfect man to add some resonance and nuance to a story that is as old as time. Sure, the plot is mostly predictable, and sure, the film is a little overly sentimental at times, but was I gripped? From the outset. Did The Way Back make me care about its varied and compelling list of characters? Absolutely. Have I got a way to finish this paragraph without just asking and then answering my own questions? I certainly hope so.
So, forget Peter Bradshaw’s sniffy one star review for the Guardian. If you’re the kind of person who loves an underdog story (so every human ever), The Way Back is for you. This is what Hollywood does best. A phoenix rising from the ashes. The comeback kid limbering up for one last knockdown. Cinema doesn’t have to be complex. Sometimes a good story is all you need. The Way Back is a great one.