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Review: 42 – Hits and misses

Posted by on April 12, 2013 – 12:03 am

42The new film 42 is a bio-pic about the late Jackie Robinson, the African-American baseball player who broke through the “color-barrier” by becoming the first black man to play on a Major League Baseball team. It’s a true tale of unimaginable heroism, but unfortunately the film doesn’t quite give the story the grandiose treatment it deserves.

If you are not a sports fan or a movie fan then you have probably already moved on to the next story; but if you are a sports movie fan, then you are probably in agreement that Barry Levinson’s The Natural, starring Robert Redford, is probably the greatest baseball movie of all time. I bring this up because THAT is the kind of grand-scale storytelling that 42 should have achieved.

After 67 years I would have hoped the Jackie Robinson story would have inspired The Natural‘s level of artistry, but for the most part this Brian Helgeland (A Knight’s Tale) written & directed film only achieves a made-for-television standard of quality. That doesn’t mean it’s not a decent film and that it doesn’t have some very good moments, but it was disappointing in that I expected a Rocky, but got a Rocky V (if you don’t mind my mixing of sports movie metaphors.)

The film covers Robinson’s rise from the Negro leagues to his first couple of seasons in the majors as a player with the Brooklyn Dodgers, nicknamed “Dem Bums,” a moniker that always makes me smile in nostalgia for a time and place that I never really knew, but grew up with by watching countless reruns of “The Little Rascals” and “The Three Stooges.”

42Robinson is a real American hero who endured unfathomable humiliation by baseball fans, players, management, the press and the American public in general — simply because of the color of his skin. He was handpicked by Brooklyn’s revolutionary team executive Branch Rickey to be the first black player in professional baseball because he had the character to stand his ground with dignity and to honorably prove his worth a great player.

Veteran television actor Chadwick Boseman (Lincoln Heights) plays Robinson and even though he has a close resemblance to the actual baseball hero, I think the part should have been played by someone with a little bit more charisma. Boseman often looks like a deer caught in the headlights and although the role probably calls for a certain amount of bewilderment, I feel the actor either overplayed it or was in fact overwhelmed by the part.

Harrison Ford does a great job as Branch Rickey, in what is probably his most unrecognizable role to date. I honestly didn’t know it was him at first, but I was pleasantly surprised by the range he displays in this movie. But while Ford turns in a great performance, I can’t say the same for whoever was doing his make-up, because in a couple of shots it appears that his bushy prosthetic eyebrows are about to fall off his face. Again, this speaks to the overall tone and quality of the film.

42There are also great performances by Lucas Black (who I’ll always remember as that kid from Sling Blade) as Pee Wee Reese, one of Robinson’s only white friends on the Brooklyn team; and Alan Tudyk (Wash from Firefly) who plays the Phillies bigoted manager, Ben Chapman, who did everything he could to make Robinson’s life a living hell. It’s a bold portrayal by this versatile and underrated actor.

This 42 film does have its moments and I applaud the fact that this story is finally being told on the big screen (although there is a 1950 film, The Jackie Robinson Story, which actually stars the athlete as himself.) There are some dramatic scenes where you can begin to feel the loneliness and immense anger and degradation that Robinson must have grappled with, and where as a white and nerdy descendent of racist ancestors I felt extreme embarrassment. Again my biggest complaint regarding this film is that it should have been painted with a grander more “Spielbergian” palette.

Another plus about this film is that it has me hungering to go to a baseball game again, so on the level of a just being a good sports movie I have to say this film worked; and the 42 jersey that’s retired in every Major League baseball park will certainly have more meaning to me in the future.
Grade: 7/10

Photos © 2013 Legendary Pictures Productions LLC