As soon as the first scene of 42 flickers across the screen, the audience immediately knows what kind of movie they are watching. Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) is telling two of his closest confindants that he has his mind set on bringing a black player up from the Negro Leagues to become the first African-American player in major league history. While music swells triumphantly behind his announcement, his assistant stutters out a mild objection, only to be stunned silent by Rickey's steadfastness.
That is 42 in a nutshell; completely happy to tell a story known by almost all sports fans without an ounce of originality to it. Nothing will make a filmgoer appreciate Steven Spielberg's work as much as having to sit through Spielberg-lite.
There are so many avenues a filmmaker can take with the Jackie Robinson story. Could we not delve into Rickey's ambitions a little further than the two reasons given: he thought it would be good for business and the right thing to do? Didn't he have moments where he actually feared for Robinson's life, or those of his family and/or teammates? No, we are only given a scene in which he shoves a pile of hatemail toward Pee Wee Reese (an underused Lucas Black) and basically tells him to grow a pair.
Thankfully Chadwick Boseman is there to hold the picture together in a star-making turn as Robinson. Valiantly putting up a good fight against the direction by Brian Helgeland, Boseman manages to convey the inner turmoil of a man fighting against himself, desperate to lash out against those mistreating him while knowing to do so would end his career. Boseman is at ease in scenes both on the field and at home. Those scenes of domestic life are greatly enhanced by the work put in by Shame's Nicole Beharie as his wife.
The entire supporting cast is a masterclass in character work, with many of the actors capable of stealing the film at any moment. Christopher Meloni (Law & Order: SVU )makes an immediate impact upon the movie with his depiction of the legendary Dodgers manager Leo Durocher, willing to bare an open mind for the sake of his ballteam winning, and not conceding an inch of power to ballplayers ready to revolt against the idea of a black man sharing their lockerroom. Alan Tudyk (Firefly) makes an impact as Phillies manager Ben Chapman, the instigator of the most racist reception Robinson encounters on the field that the film addresses. Every line of dialogue Tudyk directs Boseman's way in their scenes together seemingly contains at least two racial epiteths in an attempt to cause a reaction. Tudyk comes away from 42 as perhaps showcasing the finest acting, for somehow being a horrible antagonist while still remaining the comic foil.
Brian Helgeland is without question a talented screenwriter, but with 42 he has proven himself once again lacking as a director. There are a hundred more interesting stories to be found in Robinson's career, but what we are given is the most sterile, "inspiring" version of the man's life that could possibly be produced for the screen. 42 is a fine film to fall asleep to on a rainy weekend day, but its hard to justify paying full admission prices for it.