'42' dilutes an American sports hero

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Entertainment,Brian Hughes

It's a shame that one of the great American sports stories was the impetus for such an ordinary sports movie.

In this retelling of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball, we're given a glossy portrayal that strives for sentimentality where none is needed. Rather than simply document Robinson's heroism, director Brian Helgeland relies on syrupy speeches and swelling music, essentially reducing the towering tale to a dime-a-dozen underdog flick.

Robinson deserved so much better.

That's not to say "42" -- named after Robinson's jersey number -- is terrible. Really, it's impossible to totally screw up a story this compelling. Baseball movies lend themselves to a certain cornball sensibility. However, Helgeland gets in the way of his own material here.

On screen
'42'
» Rating: 2 out of 4 stars
» Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie, Christopher Meloni and Lucas Black
» Director: Brian Helgeland
» Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements including language
» Running time: 128 minutes

The film opens with Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, weighing the impossible: bringing a black player to Major League Baseball. It's about the bottom line, he tells his advisers, reminding them that money sees neither black nor white. Ultimately, the group settles on Jackie Robinson, a shortstop playing in the Negro leagues, who they believe possesses the grit needed to repel an endless stream of racist taunts from fans, players and even teammates.

They send Robinson to the Dodgers' minor league affiliate in Florida, where his speed puts him on the fast track to the "big show." Many in the sleepy, Southern town don't take kindly to Robinson -- and his critics are painted with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

Chadwick Boseman, a relative unknown, effectively embodies the quiet intensity that became Robinson's trademark. Unfortunately, everybody around Boseman is so busy speechifying they undercut the central character. And the film can't shake a severe case of hero worship.

What "42" gets right: the game itself. So many baseball films are chockfull with actors who have obviously never swung a bat. The filmmakers capture the look and feel of baseball in the wake of World War II. And by far, the best scenes are when Robinson is tormenting pitchers, seemingly dancing on the base paths.

As for Ford, he does a whole lot of scene chewing, unloading a barrel of rhetorical jabs at anyone who questions whether Robinson belongs in the big leagues. He delivers plenty of laughs, but often feels like a one-dimensional moral compass. And Nicole Beharie, playing Robinson's wife, is given little more to do than play cheerleader for her husband. Still, the supporting characters do their best to elevate lazy writing.

But this is Jackie Robinson we're talking about. Playing it safe just doesn't cut it.

bhughes@washingtonexaminer.com

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