Sports movies can either be totally cliché and forgettable, or they can tap into some visceral emotion that only the thrill of competition can bring out. The key to landing on the right side of the fence is using the sport to tell a truly human and emotional story that taps into something real. Director Gavin O’Connor is no stranger to helming these tales such as Miracle and Warrior, one of the best sports movies of the last decade. He once again returns to the world of sports with The Way Back as he reteams with his The Accountant star Ben Affleck to tell a story that seems tailor made for him.
The Way Back is the story of Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck), a former high school champion basketball player who now works in construction and grapples with alcoholism. Jack has separated from his wife, Angela (Janina Gavankar), and spends nearly every moment of every day either sneaking drinks in a thermos or drinking until he cannot stand, either alone or at a bar. Jack’s family and wife are concerned by his isolation, but Jack is not in a place where he wants to hear such criticism. One day he gets a call from his former Catholic high school needing a replacement coach for the basketball team. A reluctant Jack eventually agrees to take on the task while continuing his personal downward spiral.
Ben Affleck is simply doing some of the best dramatic work that he has done in years with this role. His real-life struggle with alcoholism gives him a heartbreaking believability as this man who is throwing his life away one drink at a time. This is what makes his path to redemption with the team so satisfying. The team is filled with talent that is in desperate need of a strong mentor, and Jack slowly gets to a place where he is helping these kids while turning around his own life. As with any journey, there are setbacks along the way that are frustrating, but Jack is never a character you stop rooting for to succeed. Very few people could sell this role as well as Ben Affleck.
The beauty of a sports movie from Gavin O’Connor is you never get anything that seems overly sentimental or out of the realm of believability. Jack is a mess of a human being throughout most of the movie, but as the story progresses you understand how he got to that place in his life. O’Connor is a director that believes in second chances, and he offers Jack’s story without condemnation. While the sports scenes throughout the movie are well shot and quite exciting, it is clear that it is not the true driving force of the movie. This is not a film that needs to lead up to the big game and end on a freeze frame after the last minute shot clinches the win. This is a more personal story than that, and for that reason this movie is emotionally satisfying and thematically worthwhile.
The Way Back makes its way to Blu-Ray with a high quality 1080p transfer. O’Connor appears to have shot the film digitally, but added in some minor grain to give it a more filmic look. This never seems intrusive and the presentation provides a great amount of detail and clarity throughout. Skin tones are natural and there is a good amount of texture to the production design on screen. Black levels are strong and maintain a good amount of depth in shadow. The color palette intentionally subdued, and everything is rendered correctly on this disc. This is a nice, natural looking transfer that should please fans of the movie.
Warner Bros. provides the movie with a Dolby Atmos track that sounds excellent. There are not a lot of moments that are going to standout as a particular show stopper sound-wise, but the track employs some nice use of surrounds during the high-energy basketball games with the squeaking of the shoes, the communication between team members and the roar of the crowd all being presented harmoniously without overpowering one another. It should be noted that it was necessary to turn this track up a few notches louder than my normal level for other movies, but nothing egregious. Once you settle on your preferred level, the sound serves the movie as it is intended.
- The Way Back – This Sporting Life: A five-minute featurette with the cast and crew where they discuss the importance of sports and how it delves deeper into the human condition.
- Every Loss Is Another Fight – The Road to Redemption: An additional five-minute featurette where the cast and crew discuss Jack’s path to redemption and the power of forgiveness. This was interesting because they do not hold back on making comparisons to Ben’s real life alcoholism.
The Way Back is not just a great sports movie; it is an inspiring human drama that finds Ben Affleck doing some stellar acting. While elements can be difficult to watch, it always stays honest to the character. Warner Bros. Home Entertainment has released a Blu-Ray with a lovely audio and visual presentation along with a few extras. Fans of redemption tales or Ben Affleck when he is actually trying should definitely check this one out. Highly Recommended
The Way Back is currently available to purchase on Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital.
Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the Blu-Ray.
Disclaimer: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.