Review: '42' is classy but tame Robinson tale
This film image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson in a scene from "42." (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures, D. Stevens)
Jackie Robinson was the ideal class act to break the barrier and become the first black player in Major League Baseball.
Writer-director Brian Helgeland's Robinson biopic "42" is a class act itself, though not always an engaging act. It's 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 Robinson's 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 Robinson's 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 Boseman's 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.
This film image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson, left, and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey in a scene from "42." (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures, D. Stevens)
Robinson is Rickey's clear choice. "I want a player who's got the guts NOT to fight back," Rickey tells Robinson. "Your enemy will be out in force, and you cannot meet him on his own low ground."
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 can't play on the same field as whites — it's only a warm-up for what comes in 1947 after Robinson dons a Dodgers uniform and steps out of the tunnel at Ebbets Field.
Some of his own teammates already have balked at playing with Robinson, a rebellion quickly quelled by Dodgers manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni, in a small but delightful performance).