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6 Degrees Entertainment

Movie Reviews
The Way Back
(R / 108 mins / Warner Bros.)

Overview: Back in high school, Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) had everything going for him. A basketball phenom, he could have punched his ticket to college or even the pros, but, instead, he chose to walk away from the game, forfeiting his future.

Jacks glory days are long gone, but, as it turns out, not forgotten. Years later, he gets the chance to take back his life when he is asked to coach the struggling basketball team at his alma mater.

Jack reluctantly accepts, surprising no one more than himself, and as the boys start to come together as a team and win, he may get his last shot at redemption.

Verdict: Ben Afflecks struggles with addiction has been headline fodder for years, along with that back tattoo.

So it is tempting to read his performance as an alcoholic has-been in his latest film The Way Back as some sort of on-screen avatar for his personal demons.

At the very least, it lends an authenticity to his character you believe that Affleck has looked at that glass of amber beer with self-loathing, before all restraint went out the window and despair took over.

Whatever The Way Backs faults - and there are a few - Affleck is not the problem. His performance is a low-key, convincing turn imbued with pain and frustrations. Above all, you sense that this character is tired, exhausted from everything that has been thrown at him.

His choices never feel overwrought, where previously in his earlier career he might have been tempted to dial it up 20 per cent.

It makes Afflecks character incredibly sympathetic and you do not judge him for his choices, even as he is cleaning out a fridge-full of beer in a one-night bender.

It is a shame then that The Way Back as a whole could not match the caliber of Afflecks performance.

Directed by Gavin OConnor, the movie is centered on a construction worker, Jack (Affleck). He is divorced, lives in an untidy, sad apartment and ends every night either drinking alone at home or at a rundown bar where the owner keeps refilling his glass.

He is isolated himself from his family, including his sister Beth (Michaela Watkins), who does not know how to help him.

Out of the blue, he gets a call from his old high school, where as a student he was a star basketball player whose flair on the court earned the team state championships and him a full scholarship to university, even though he did not take up the post.

The school needs a head coach, and they want Jack. The team is a ragtag group of boys with some raw talent but little focus and they have been on a losing streak.

Up against better teams, Jacks hand sees them fighting back, and he instills hope in these boys, especially the taciturn Brandon (Brandon Wilson) who has a natural instinct for the game.

Ergo, The Way Back is essentially two movies.

There is the fairly generic underdog sports movie in which the dismissed team proves their mettle complete with training montages and fast-paced game sequences.

There is value in the basketball scenes in that the teens are likeable if underdeveloped as characters. But there is nothing here you have not seen before.

Then there is the alcoholism movie in which Jack is just trying to deal with the day-to-day of living with this addiction, which we are led to believe spawns from his father and a tragedy revealed midway through the story.

The Way Back feels disjointed because it does not weave the two plots together very well. When the team starts to do well, the drinking seems to subside, or at least it is not shown on screen.

Maybe that is how it works Affleck should know but it does not make for a consistent narrative jumping around in tone.

OConnors directing style varies from un-showy to occasionally hokey, resorting to too much slow-motion or cheesy fade-outs.

In closing, The Way Back is a humdrum movie saved from complete tedium by an affecting Affleck performance.