A sickly-sweet sports movie that demands its viewers punch the air at least once every 30 minutes.
Jackie Robinson was one hell of a ball player. In 1947, at the end of his debut season for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson won the inaugural 'Rookie of the Year' award for his overall accomplishment on the field. In 1955, he helped the Dodgers beat the New York Yankees to get their hands on the World Series title after years of trying. In 1962, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame at the first possible opportunity. He even had a hit record written all about him, the Buddy Johnson/Count Basie swing number "Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?"
The thing that made Robinson truly remarkable, however, and ultimately secured his legacy in the history of sporting achievement, was the way he broke the notorious 'colour line' prevalent in baseball since the earliest days of the game. As the very first black player drafted into the Major League, Robinson opened the floodgates for generations of athletes to compete at the highest possible level, and changed the face of the national pastime forever.
42 is Brian Helgeland's old-fashioned biopic of Robinson. The film takes its name after Robinson's traditional uniform number, a number that holds an almost holy significance in baseball. So much so that once a year, Major League Baseball holds a Jackie Robinson Day, when every single player on every single team wears “42” in tribute to the legendary baseman.
That's the kind of dewy-eyed, sentimental affection that trickles through Helgeland's entertaining take on the Robinson legend. The L.A. Confidential screenwriter takes all the aforementioned milestones and knits them into a warm, comforting blanket of a movie, one you want to wrap tightly around you, albeit with sufficient room to pat yourself on the back at regular intervals. It's a gloriously sentimental, shamelessly enjoyable slice of apple pie that sugar-coats on a Willy Wonka scale.
The film arrives on these shores, interestingly, some months after the film's barnstorming US release. Perhaps there's a little marketing anxiety about how to position Robinson's inspirational yet very specifically American story on this side of the pond, where baseball has about as much cultural significance as Twinkies or Richard Simmons.
Thankfully, 42 grounds its audience in baseball patter pretty early on, and as the film gradually aligns its focus on both the historical and personal impacts of Robinson's achievements, the ins-and-outs of the game matter less and less. You get just enough education to whisk you around the ballpark, that's all that matters.
A cracking sports movie should work on the same level as horror i.e. its success can be gauged by how much it provokes some kind of tangible visceral reaction. Put it this way, if you don't want to punch the air by the time the credits roll, then it's doing something very wrong indeed. Helgeland knows this, and 42 has these moments of triumphalism in spades. Take, for instance, the scene in which Robinson shares his first ever communal shower with his colleagues. Never has personal hygiene felt so damn victorious.
In this respect, 42 doesn't radically reinvent as much as it celebrates its genre. This glossy, schmaltzy film throws pretty much every convention in the air, and even makes a few decent catches. It's insanely sticky and sweet from the get-go (think The Help meets The Natural) but who cares? Lack of curveballs aside, this is sports movie Babylon .
Robinson is played by Chadwick Boseman, a talented up-and-coming young actor better known to US TV audiences. Admittedly, it's not a role that demands fireworks. Instead, Helgeland's script requires Boseman to remain strong and steadfast in the face of adversity, and that's what he does, almost unwaveringly.
Robinson's basically a cipher, although Boseman portrays him with ample warmth, humanity and just a hint of vulnerability. The tunnel scene in which Robinson breaks down mid-game, the cracks finally starting to show after a torrent of abuse on the field, is utterly heartbreaking
Even more interesting is Harrison Ford as Dodgers mogul Branch Rickey, the pernickety old grouch who hires Robinson in an effort to boost attendance from black baseball fans (Helgeland is pretty up front about how this was as much a commercial move as it was humanitarian gesture.) Let's be honest, nothing says 'pernickety old grouch' quite like Harrison Ford, and he delivers beyond the call of duty here.
Is this Ford's best performance in years? Quite possibly. He certainly seems to be enjoying himself. The chemistry with Boseman is palpable, and Ford's face actually moves more than its moved in, like, forever. There's a likeable, roguish arrogance to this performance that reminds the world that he's still got that Han Solo chutzpah.
A genuine smash in the US, but can this baseball banger hit a home run with UK audiences?
Warm, reverent and unabashedly sentimental, Helgeland's pitch perfect take on the sports movie genre really does step up to the plate.
Enthralling and educational to the final throw, though perhaps there's a more sober spin on the Robinson legend waiting in the wings.