‘The Way Back’ turns to the redemptive power of sports

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‘THE WAY BACK’ Rated R

The redemptive power of sports has played out in many ways in the course of cinematic history. No matter the sport, there’s always something uplifting about an underdog team that finds a way to win a championship.

Based on the true story of one of the greatest moments in sports history, “Miracle,” starring Kurt Russell as Team USA coach Herb Brooks, recounted the inspiring feat of mostly amateur players on the USA Hockey team defeating the seemingly invincible Soviet Union squad.

More to the point of “The Way Back,” about a losing high school basketball team, the “Hoosiers” story of a small-town Indiana team making an improbable run at a state high school championship that taps into the spirit of redemption ranks high on the list of great sports movies.

Whether “The Way Back” could be deemed to reach an exalted rank in the pantheon of underdog amateur sporting accomplishments may be an unsettled issue, but it does connect with a sports fan’s inclination to be moved by the salvation of woeful competitors.

And while watching the trailer gives off the idea that the experience of this film is focused solely on a motley crew of Catholic teenagers at the Bishop Hayes High School, the truth of the matter is something almost entirely different.

This is where Ben Affleck’s alcoholic Jack Cunningham comes into the picture. About a quarter-century earlier, Cunningham was the big basketball star on the high school team, leading it to a championship. A banner with his name hangs in the gymnasium’s rafters.

The players on the Bishop Hayes team, if not truly terrible, have certainly not been properly trained or coached to be competitive. After the coach has a heart attack, math teacher Dan (Al Madrigal) tries to hold the team together as the assistant coach.

The priest running the school reaches out to Cunningham to be the new coach, telling him that “You’re the first person I thought of.” More likely, he had nowhere else to turn, and he may have reconsidered if he had any idea about his star player’s troubled life.

By day, Cunningham is a construction worker, now separated from his wife Angela (Janina Gavankar), for reasons not immediately known if you overlook the fact that he can’t even take a shower without drinking several cans of beer.

What’s more, his daily routine also consists of pouring booze into a thermos for nips while on the job, followed by hanging out after work in a dive bar that ends the night most of the time with him being carried home by one of the patrons.

Eventually, the fact that Cunningham is a tortured soul becomes apparent from a tragedy that caused a huge rift in his marriage and an addiction to alcohol that takes him on an emotional rollercoaster ride of futility.

Tension is not only found in Cunningham’s relationship with his estranged spouse. A family Thanksgiving reunion turns uncivil as Cunningham squabbles with his sister Beth (Michaela Watkins) about his lack of interest in anything that can’t be poured into a glass.

After an initial rebuff of his alma mater’s entreaties to take over the team, Cunningham commits one could say, for the most part, to taking on the unenviable task of molding his players to function as real teammates.

One of his first orders of business is to bench the showboating Marcus (Melvin Gregg), who favors taking the 3-point shots instead of passing to a teammate open for a greater certainty of actually scoring.

Gruff, profane and pushing his kids to the limit, Cunningham instills a cohesive discipline on his modest talent pool, goading them to a truly competitive spirit that results in an appealing underdog story that gains traction with a string of victories.

If you guessed that the Bishop Hayes team would qualify for the playoffs only to find themselves against a team that had crushed them at the beginning of the season, you’ve already seen this part of the movie in countless other underdog stories.

“The Way Back” is much more than the predictable showdown with a fearsome rival that has much greater physical talent. Cunningham’s molding of his motley crew turns them into a viable squad that just might believe in their own abilities.

While the team becomes a winner, Cunningham’s inner demons are not so easily relegated to the past, and conflict with the school leadership over his inability to give up a fondness for adult beverages puts his own redemption into jeopardy.

Fittingly enough, Gavin O’Connor, the director, was the perfect fit for “The Way Back,” as he knows how to deliver a compelling story that overlaps between life and sports. That his behind-the-camera work delivered the acclaimed hit “Miracle” says it all.

Of course, with Ben Affleck’s Jack Cunningham, much like Kurt Russell’s coach Herb Brooks in “Miracle,” being the central focus of “The Way Back,” a robust and convincing performance from the star makes all the difference.

Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.