MOVIE BUFF-ET: Affleck lifts ‘The Way Back’ above sports-movie norm

Warner Bros.

Ben Affleck traded in the Bat-mobile and his cape for a basketball and a case of beer in his latest film, and the role suits the actor well in a slightly uncomfortable yet still appealing sports drama “The Way Back.”

After carving out a compelling career directing strong movies like Academy Award-winning “Argo” (2012), “Gone Baby Gone” (2007), and “The Town” (2010), Affleck stepped up to the blockbuster plate to be Warner Bros.’ Batman in the divisive “Batman v. Superman” and the poorly received and troubled “Justice League” for the opportunity to direct and star in his own solo “Batman” film.

Though many fans and critics felt his turn as the Dark Knight in “BvS” was the best thing about the underperforming Zack Snyder-directed film, the thrill of being Batman had gone after the stinker “Justice League” flopped hard.

Though he co-wrote what was rumored to be a very interesting script for the solo Bat movie, he exited the project and entered alcohol rehab after his philandering broke up his marriage with actress Jennifer Garner.

In recent interviews, Affleck’s stated a friend advised him to leave the pressure of helming the super-hero blockbuster behind in favor of of cleaning up his act.

Based on the outcome of the Gavin O’Connor-directed “The Way Back,” it was a slam-dunk move.

The film is a solid crowd-pleaser that tells the story of how friendship and basketball begins to lead alcoholic Jack Cunningham (Affleck) out of a tragedy-induced spiral that is ruining his life.

Cunningham was a star basketball player for Bishop Hayes Catholic High in the mid-1990s before his resentment of his father’s alcoholism prompted him to throw away a full scholarship to play for the Kansas Jayhawks just to hurt his dad.

Two and a half decades later, Jack’s a divorced construction worker who swills beer and vodka on the job as a functioning alcoholic by day that continues to drown his sorrows at a local haunt by night. Almost nightly, an old friend Doc (Glyn Turman) helps the stumble bum home, just like he did for his father.

A desperate Father Devine (John Aylward) begs Jack to coach his struggling basketball team after the death of the coach unexpectedly dies just before the start of the season. Jack intends to turn the job down, the lure of the game he loves is too strong, and he begrudgingly steps into the job.

Who knew, but the gruff and profane Jack is a coaching savant who whips an undersized, rag-tag group of players into a hard-nosed, pressing machine that goes from being an embarrassment to the verge of earning a spot in the playoffs for the first time since Jack roamed the court himself.

The basketball action in the film is believable enough for the willing to buy into its conceits, even though the film checks off just about every sports-movie cliche along the way.

Just when you think its time to cue the theme to “Rocky” like so many other films before, the movie reveals the true source of Jack’s pain, and another layer of depth is added by Brad Ingelsby’s script with a heart-wrenching reveal.

Though the movie still falls into the formulaic category, O’Connor hits the right notes with his direction, and Affleck gives a winning performance as the guy everyone roots for but who just can’t quite keep things together. It’s clear Affleck relates to the character and has a passion for the role.

While the entire cast capably fills their roles, Affleck imbues his character with a believability that’s hard to deny. The material is solid but certainly not award worthy; however, Affleck does elevate the movie in the way a star should.

As an avid sports fan, I was predisposed to like the “Hoosiers”-esque quality of the movie, and appreciated that O’Connor and Ingelsby deviated just enough with the plot to give Affleck the platform to show that there is heroism in trying to make amends for a wasted life with his character Jack.

Ultimately, the movie fails to rise much above its basic appeal, but Affleck was clearly meant to play the role and that lifts the movie about the norm.

(R) 1 hr. 48 min.
Grade: B

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Classic Corner – King Kong (1933)


Billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World, “King Kong” shocked and awed audiences when it was released in 1933 with its revolutionary special effects provided by the master of stop-motion animation Willis O’Brien.

Though special effects have traveled light years since Kong first thrilled audiences 87 years ago, O’Brien’s effects still stand out with their inventiveness and flare.

Critics still view the pre-code film directed and produced by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack as one of the best and most significant horror films of all time. “King Kong” still ranks as high as seventh on Rotten Tomatoe’s all-time horror movie list, just below No. 6 “The Bride of Frankenstein” (1935) and above No. 8 “Psycho” (1960).

The Malco Razorback Cinema is holding a special showing of the film at 1 p.m. Sunday. According to the Fathom Events website, “King Kong” has not played on the big screen since a 1960 re-release at the height of the the “Monster Kid” craze.

I’ve probably seen the original a half dozen if not more times since first viewing the movie on television as a kid in 1975, and the chance to watch the movie on the big screen for the first time is still enticing. The film never disappoints, and it continues to impress as I notice a new bits that I missed before every time I re-watch it.

Kong, who was last seen in theaters in 2017’s “Kong: Skull Island” is scheduled to return to the big screen on Nov. 20 in the fourth film of Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse in “Godzilla vs. Kong.”

Seeing the movie that started the giant-monster craze is the perfect way to get ready for the impending clash of titans this November.