The Way Back (2020)

The Way Back (2020)

The Way Back posterDirected by: Gavin O’Connor. Starring: Ben Affleck, Al Madrigal, Janina Gavankar. Runtime: 1h 48 min. Released: March 6, 2020.

Gavin O’Connor’s The Way Back is the latest addition to an unofficial cinematic universe – films with the key words Way Back in the title, starting with Emilio Estevez’ The Way, then a few months later with Peter Weir’s adventure drama The Way Back, and then in 2013 with my personal favourite The Way, Way Back.

Obviously these films have nothing to do with each other, but four is too many films with a generic name like this. The generic title is fair for O’Connor’s sports drama because it’s familiar, but it is also very good.

Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) was a high school basketball legend on his way to earning a scholarship before he walked away from the game. Years later, he’s given a shot at redemption coaching the team at his alma mater, a Catholic high school called Bishop Hayes.

Jack isn’t exactly the poster boy for the Catholic image. He’s an alcoholic skilled at hiding his boozing. We see him sneak liquor into his thermos at his construction job, and then plow through a fridge full of beer cans while deciding to take this coaching job. The scenes when Jack needs to be helped home because he can barely stand are hard to watch.

Affleck brings his A-game as the character and it’s the best male performance I’ve seen so far this year. It’s a quiet, tortured performance as he battles his inner demons. When we learn more about these demons, it is crushing, and I wouldn’t dare spoil that. I’ll just say this is one of Affleck’s finest performances and he is heartbreaking and powerful.

The Way Back article
Al Madrigal and Ben Affleck in The Way Back. (IMDb)

He’s great in the sports scenes, too. When Jack puts down the bottle and takes an interest in these kids, The Way Back inspires, and it inspires on and off the court. There are a couple of players that we learn about. Jack’s dynamic with Brandon Durrett (Brandon Wilson), a quiet player with a deep understanding of the game, is the most interesting. Brandon’s father doesn’t approve of the game as a career path and it’s fascinating watching Jack turn him into a leader.

Another main player is Marcus Wiggins (Melvin Gregg). He has attitude problems and thinks he’s the star of the team, and I like how his character is handled. Another player, Kenny Dawes (Will Ropp), is one-note as a ladies man, but he gets some good laughs. We learn the names of the other players – like Chubbs (Charles Lott Jr.), Bobby Freeze (Ben Irving) and Sam Garcia (Fernando Luis Vega), but the rest feel like they’re there to fill out a roster.

The film’s also not so much about the kids, it’s about Jack and how they change him. I like how Jack changes the team, too, and his coaching strategy brings a lot of comedy since it’s a Catholic school and he swears a lot, much to the chagrin of the team’s chaplain, Father Mark Whelan (Jeremy Radin). The dynamic with assistant coach Dan (Al Madrigal) is also strong in the film. Jack brings a winning mindset to the team and it charms in its sports moments. The dramatic scenes are also beautiful, and I like the way director Gavin O’Connor shoots drama.

The film is about Jack’s trauma and basketball. Basketball gives Jack a purpose and it’s used as healing, but the film never shows that it could cure everything for him. O’Connor and screenwriter Brad Ingelsby write a strong film here. There’s a good balance to The Way Back. There’s importance in its sports scenes, but an equal importance to being a character study on alcoholism and trauma. That makes Jack’s way back even more compelling.

Score: 75/100

Run All Night (2015)

Run All Night (2015)
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Released March 13, 2015. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. Starring Liam Neeson, Ed Harris, Joel Kinnaman. Written by Brad Ingelsby. 1hr., 54 min.

Vengeance and a father’s love pair up on a long December night

Featuring a visually pleasing style and packing a surprisingly emotional punch, Run All Night will please anyone looking for a concise narrative that happens over one long night.

Fate pits best friends Jimmy Conlon, portrayed by Liam Neeson, and Shawn Maguire, Ed Harris, against each other in a deadly situation when Jimmy is forced to kill Shawn’s son to protect his own kin. Maguire’s son Danny, the up-and-coming supporting star Boyd Holbrook (A Walk Among the Tombstones), kills a pair of Albanians in a local gang after he tries to bring drugs to the family business. The entire situation is a product of Danny’s insolence and need for independence – to handle a problem on his own, like his father suggested. Surely, this is not what he meant.

His father is a legitimate business man, also known as a New York mafia boss, who won’t bring drugs back to his city after he had a bad experience amongst his workers once before. Michael, portrayed by RoboCop’s Joel Kinnaman, comes into this when he drove the to-be-murdered Albanians to Danny’s home. He is a limousine driver and family man, with a seriously estranged relationship with his own father – a former hitman for Shawn Maguire.

Now Jimmy is retired, but his nightmares of those he has killed have not rested. He’s drunk and tattered, playing the flawed hero he seems to play at least once a year nowadays, notably in 2014’s Non-Stop and A Walk Among the Tombstones.

Common as Andrew Price. (Source)
Common as Andrew Price. (Source)

Hey, if it works, it works. It feels even more familiar here, however, since this has such a similar style to Non-Stop, which director Jaume Collet-Serra also helmed. It has a different framing – New York circa Christmas time, but it’s about as much of a Christmas flick as Die Hard. There’s also a prominent NHL game in play throughout – the New York Rangers versus the New Jersey Devils, perhaps to display the city’s culture. It later works cleverly into the screenplay, which is written by Brad Ingelsby, writer of 2013’s Out of the Furnace. Similar settings, scenes and tone make this more familiar.

Run All Night isn’t memorable because of its originality, but because of its emotionally interesting narrative. Jimmy will largely do anything to protect Michael and that shows a father’s love for his son, even if they don’t know each other well. However, Michael’s bitterness towards his father becomes so sporadically extreme, that the character is sometimes too unlikable.

Liam Neeson as Jimmy Conlon. (Source)
Liam Neeson as Jimmy Conlon. (Source)

During the quicker action scenes, the editing becomes hectic. That’s one of the weaker technical aspects of the film; but the redeeming cinematography is smooth.  The action scenes work because they are fun and have personality. But there are scenes that don’t work – like uninspired bouts of ruthlessness just so it can show that these characters can be brutal. Or a bathroom brawl for lack of realism, since they make a lot of noise – and how does no one hear the commotion in the commode in a crowded subway station?

A fun antagonist includes a hitman portrayed the Oscar-winning Common. He’s called to be robotic and calculated as Andrew Price, but ends up being the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of assassins, particularly when he’s called to put on his nice guy act, and then he becomes monstrous. Vincent D’Onofrio portrays Detective Harding, an antagonizing, prejudiced officer who has been gunning for Jimmy “Gravedigger” Conlon for years. His assumptions of Jimmy and his son are sometimes downright mean.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra does bring his best action film yet to the table. He expertly deals with themes of regrets in life through Conlon, largely signified through a repeated line with former bestie Maguire, “Wherever we’re going, when we cross that line, we’re going together.” It’s fascinating that a family member’s death because of intense circumstances can cause him to be so vengeful, but the way that writer Ingelsby doesn’t delve into it well enough causes him to be more basic than he could have been. Collet-Serra handles the emotions well and builds great tension throughout.

3 stars