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The most cynical view of the sports drama The Way Back is that it is kind of a contemporary version of the 1986 film Hoosiers with Ben Affleck an amalgam of both Gene Hackman’s tough-as-nails basketball coach and Dennis Hopper’s wretched alcoholic assistant coach.

Affleck is Jack Cunningham, a basketball phenom when he attended Bishop Hayes Catholic High School in his youth, now a shell of a man, drinking on the sly at his construction job, and drinking without constraints when he’s off the clock.

The film establishes Jack’s alcoholic regimen in a few elegant scenes. Eventually, Jack is obliged to interact with family members, concerned with his downward spiral, including his sister Beth (Michaela Watkins) and his estranged wife, Angela (Janina Gavankar).

Richard Foreman/Warner Bros. </p><p>Ben Affleck doesn’t quite connect with viewers as an alcoholic basketball coach with daddy issues.</p></p></p>

Richard Foreman/Warner Bros.

Ben Affleck doesn’t quite connect with viewers as an alcoholic basketball coach with daddy issues.

The promise of salvation is offered, not inappropriately, by the aptly named elderly priest Father Edward Devine (John Aylward). The coach of Jack’s old team, the Bishop Hayes Tigers, has had a heart attack. The good father asks Jack to step into in the coaching role. Despite his best drunken efforts, Jack can’t come up with a reason to say no.

Director Gavin O’Connor is a filmmaker who has demonstrated an ability to find a powerful emotional core to films that, in lesser hands, would succumb to big action tropes, such as his oddball 2016 assassin movie The Accountant, also starring Affleck, or his unexpectedly satisfying 2011 family drama Warrior, set against a backdrop of mixed martial arts.

Both those films were about men with father issues, and this film, written by Brad Inglesby, stays that course, revealing after a while that Jack turned his back on a promising basketball career as revenge on a dad who withheld his love.

Ironically, being a coach forces him to act as a paternal figure to this inevitably ragtag team of youths he eventually sculpts into formidable competitors, à la Hoosiers.

Richard Foreman / Warner Bros. </p><p>Jack Cunningham (Affleck) gives Marcu Parrish (Melvin Gregg) a pep talk. </p></p>

Richard Foreman / Warner Bros.

Jack Cunningham (Affleck) gives Marcu Parrish (Melvin Gregg) a pep talk.

The film’s novelty is in its slow, slow reveal of what broke Jack in the first place. It’s a melodramatic dance of a thousand veils, as Jack’s defences are whittled down.

It’s not ineffective: One scene in particular in a hospital is staged for maximum wrench by O’Connor, a director who wisely casts comedic actors — including Watkins, ex of Saturday Night Live and currently on CBS sitcom The Unicorn, and Daily Show vet Al Madrigal as an out-of-his-league assistant coach — in solid dramatic roles.

If the film fails to dunk when it comes to dramatic impact, it’s mostly due to Affleck himself. While the actor admirably took the role in the wake of copping to his own alcoholism, there is a persistent disconnect about him that simply defies audience identification. (Ironically, O’Connor exploited that quality in The Accountant, in which Affleck’s obsessive-compulsive killer was on the autism spectrum, resulting in arguably his best work.)

Even a brutal back-story is not enough get viewers on Affleck’s side.

Richard Foreman / Warner Bros. </p><p>Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) coaches a ragtag team of high school basketball players in The Way Back.</p>

Richard Foreman / Warner Bros.

Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) coaches a ragtag team of high school basketball players in The Way Back.

Expect a more seasoned moviegoer to exit the theatre thinking one of two things:

Damn, I miss Gene Hackman.

Damn, I miss Dennis Hopper.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
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In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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