Jackie Robinson was the ideal class act to break the barrier and become the first black player in Major League Baseball.
Writer-director Brian Helgelands Robinson biopic 42 is a class act itself, though not always an engaging act. Its such a familiar story that any faithful film biography almost inevitably will turn out predictable, even a bit routine.
With an earnest performance by Chadwick Boseman as Robinson and an enjoyably self-effacing turn by Harrison Ford as Brooklyn Dodgers boss Branch Rickey, 42 hits every button you expect very ably. It riles with its re-creations of the heartless, ignorant racism to which Robinson was subjected. It uplifts with its depictions of Robinsons restraint and fortitude. It inspires with its glimpses of support and compassion from teammates and fans.
Yet like a sleepy, low-scoring ballgame, 42 is not the jolt of energy and entertainment we wish it could be.
Unlike No. 42 Robinsons daring on the base paths, 42 plays out safely and methodically, centering on the two most critical years in his rise to the majors and letting that time unfold with slow, sturdy momentum.
The film starts in 1945 with Bosemans Robinson among many great talents stuck in the Negro Leagues because of the whites-only code that rules the majors. Rickey, played with crusty, jowly curmudgeonhood by Ford, is scanning the black rosters, determined to find the right mix of skill and temperament to make a mark in the big leagues and withstand the certain firestorm of bigotry with grace and self-control.
Robinson is Rickeys clear choice.
By spring 1946, Robinson had secured a spot on the Dodgers minor-league team in Montreal. As eventful as that season is with white fans booing Robinson, opponents taunting him and Deep South police insisting he cant play on the same field as whites its only a warm-up for what comes in 1947 after Robinson dons a Dodgers uniform and steps out of the tunnel at Ebbets Field.
There are death threats, savage verbal abuse, pitchers deliberately aiming to bean Robinson, hotels that turn away the entire team because of his presence. Alan Tudyk takes on an ugly role and delivers perfectly as Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman, who mercilessly hurls racial slurs at Robinson each time he comes to bat.
Ford and Boseman bond to present a big-hearted friendship between Rickey and Robinson. With a slouchy mix of dapper but rumpled elegance, Ford is a pleasure to watch and especially to listen to as he rumbles with phlegmy, folksy conviction to defend Robinsons right to play.
Helgelands dialogue becomes preachy at times, and away from the ball field or front office, 42 often languishes in soapiness. As Robinsons wife, Rachel, Nicole Beharie is sweet and saintly but not very interesting. The story of black baseball writer Wendell Smith (Andre Holland) parallels Robinsons, but the film burns up a lot of time trying to establish camaraderie between the two that never quite gels.
Still, its the best work Helgeland (Payback, A Knights Tale) has done as a director (hes had better results as a screenwriter, winning an Academy Award for L.A. Confidential and earning a nomination for Mystic River).
And for all the hate and hostility it depicts, 42 is a film about decent-hearted people. Hate can be infectious, but so can decency. Its the decency youll take away from 42.
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