After becoming more known for his personal life and filmmaking, Ben Affleck delivers his latest impressive performance with The Way Back.

By Derek Lawrence
March 09, 2020 at 04:12 PM EDT
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Richard Foreman; Jr. SMPSP/Warner Bros.

How do you like them apples?! My ranking of the Boston BFF movie stars has long been what I've considered my hottest take (closely followed by Hitch being the greatest rom-com of all time), and my stance has only been enhanced by Affleck's affecting performance in The Way Back. Now, I'll admit that Damon is definitely the more consistent actor, but I contend that Affleck's highs are higher — and his lows are by far lower.

Since Affleck won the Oscar for writing Good Will Hunting with Damon, he's weathered some major ups and downs, and that has often been the No. 1 talking point about him. When people think Affleck, I'd argue that his acting isn't even one of the first four things that comes to mind. In some order, it's probably his personal life (be it his relationships or substance abuse issues), his friendship with Damon, his surprising evolution into an accomplished director, and sad Ben Affleck.

But there's plenty to discuss when it comes to him in front of the camera, and he reminded us of that with The Way Back (or at least those who saw it considering the unimpressive box office returns). In Gavin O'Connor's basketball drama, Affleck stars as Jack Cunningham, a former high school standout who has fallen on hard times, leaving him drinking away his days and nights, until he's asked to coach his alma mater.

The role of a coach in a sports drama is catnip for movie stars (see Denzel Washington in Remember the Titans or Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday), but, despite the troubles befalling Jack, Affleck never overplays it or goes too big, which is impressive considering how wrong those drunk scenes could play in the wrong hands. And maybe his effectiveness in those moments is because of his own battle with alcoholism, a history that is hard to ignore when watching Jack carried home after a night at the bar or throwing back a beer in the shower.

With The Way Back serving as just the latest standout Affleck performance, I could sit here and name a dozen or so more (Hollywoodland, the Armageddon DVD commentary, Argo), but I've selected the five that I think best represent the underappreciation of Affleck, the movie star.

Good Will Hunting

Writing and starring in the 1997 drama with his best friend, Damon, was the big breakout moment for Affleck, whose career was starting to take off after appearing in Dazed and Confused and, more so, Chasing Amy. It's easy to focus on Damon in Good Will Hunting, as he's the titular lead and gets the meaty emotional scenes, not to mention how for many years he seemed to unfairly get most of the credit for the film, at least until Affleck further proved his filmmaking credentials as a director. As great as Damon and Robin Williams are, two of the most memorable moments stand on Affleck's shoulders. First, he shows off his comedy chops when Chuckie poses as Will in a meeting and gives an all-time line of delivery of "Retainer," only to be topped dramatically by his "The Best Part of My Day" speech, in which he reveals previously unseen layers to his blue-collar character. There's a reason why by the next year he'd be starring in both a $150 million blockbuster (Armadeggon) and the Best Picture winner (Shakespeare in Love).

Boiler Room

Being a movie star isn't just about leading a franchise film or prestige awards contender, it also means that you can randomly show up for five minutes and steal a movie. And that's exactly what Affleck does in the peak 2000 crime drama Boiler Room (Vin Diesel! Giovanni Ribisi!! Scott Caan!!!). He appears in just three scenes as high-rolling stockbroker Jim Young, but he only really needs one. Ribisi's character's introduction to the world of finance comes courtesy of an Affleck speech that had 12-year-old me ready to start making calls. "Anybody tells you money is the root of all evil doesn't f—ing have any," he declares. "They say money can't buy happiness? Look at the f—in' smile on my face. Ear to ear, baby."

The Town

For his directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, Affleck made the decision to stay behind the camera and cast his brother Casey in the lead role. But, when it came time for The Town, he was ready to take on double duty, and the movie was better off for it. While the underrated heist film scored an Oscar nom for Jeremy Renner's chilling supporting turn as the violent Gem, The Town works as effectively as it does because of Affleck's Doug McCray, who dreams of pulling one last score and riding off into the sunset with his new girlfriend. Affleck and Renner shine together as partners-in-crime, but the director provides himself with a real spotlight scene when Doug unloads on Gem for saying he can't leave their crew behind. Extra points for "All you give a f— about is coke and X-Box."

Gone Girl

Rosamund Pike rightfully was the talking point after Gone Girl, considering we've never quite seen a film character like Amy Dunne. And in that discussion, the forgotten performance was Affleck, who proved to be perfect as both the guy who could have killed his wife and the dope who was framed for his wife's murder by his wife. Hell, Affleck was almost too flawless in the role, according to director David Fincher.

Triple Frontier

Confession: I've now seen Triple Frontier three times since it's release exactly one year ago. In my defense, two of the three have been for work (this story and my important ranking of how effective each star would be in an actual heist). Like with any Netflix original, it's hard to know how popular Triple Frontier is, but I've done my best to spread the word. Even so, I admit it's not a perfect film — in fact, it's two films in one, and the first half's heist version serves as the high point. The project was actually in the works for almost a decade, and seemingly every male star of a certain age was attached at one point, before eventually settling on the intriguing alpha-male group of Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Garrett Hedlund, Pedro Pascal, and Charlie Hunnam. While Isaac is technically the lead, Affleck is the one who you can't take your eyes off of. Far from his peak movie star condition, Affleck plays the group's washed-up former captain who seems lost in retirement (the only thing he's managed to gain is a beer gut). Once Triple Frontier was finally made, Affleck was attached for the second time, having previously left for personal reasons, and, like The Way Back, it's hard to not see that offscreen weight influencing the performance and character of Tom "Redfly" Davis. And like Affleck, once back in the action, we see what made him so great at his job.

Over the course of his almost 25 years in the limelight, enduring drama both professional and personal along the way, Affleck has managed to routinely bounce back and reach even greater heights after being counted out. So, with a psychological thriller opposite rising star Ana de Armas and a writing and acting reunion with Damon in Ridley Scott's The Last Duel on the way, not to mention this latest showcase of character work in the sports drama The Way Back, Affleck, the movie star, is back in the game.

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