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'42' review: Stay for the late innings

**1/2 (out of four)

“42,” the almost automatically inspirational account of Jackie Robinson’s entrance to major league baseball in the late 1940s, wastes no time trumpeting its story’s rousing power.

“I’m gonna bring a Negro ballplayer to the Brooklyn Dodgers,” team president Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford, funny) grumbles right off the, uh, bat.

“Have you lost your mind?” his assistant responds, oblivious to the persistently hopeful music that dots the movie’s score.

“Dollars aren’t black and white,” Rickey replies, a comment made in almost every film dealing with race and business. “They’re green.”

Thankfully, that relentless obviousness disappears in the second half of “42,” which features a potentially star-making turn from Chadwick Boseman as Robinson, the first African-American to break pro baseball’s color barrier and the only player to have his number retired across the league. Throughout the film, the real-life legend is required to absorb the racism coming his way, knowing that a response would be seen as weakness, not justified retaliation for unyielding attacks.

The attacks come most strongly from the Philadelphia Phillies manager (Alan Tudyk), who walks out of the dugout just to heckle Robinson every time he’s at the plate. Boseman conveys strength without overplaying anything, and both Robinson’s ability to reassure himself and the crucial support of his wife (Nicole Beharie of “Shame”) show how a person could absorb that pressure and vitriol—all just because he wants to succeed in the game he loves.

Writer-director Brian Helgeland, whose career contains far more stinkers like “Conspiracy Theory” and “The Order” than the excellent “L.A. Confidential” and “Mystic River,” seems to think viewers need convention and transparency in a story that was, in real life, both revolutionary and complicated. (It’s not hard to spot similarities to “A League of Their Own.”) I knew Robinson would ask his boss, “Why are you doing this?” before the words left his mouth. Robinson tossing a ball to a black kid who looks up to him, and ultimately hitting a homer off a racist pitcher, scream “Movie of the Week.”

Is it asking too much for filmmakers to approach biopics with even a shred of their subjects’ innovation?

By the end of “42,” though, the film succeeds at depicting the on-field greatness needed for Robinson to change the minds of certain fans, players and league administrators. It’s about an unwritten law being as difficult to overturn as a written one, and about a base-stealing, home run-hitting man who saw himself as “just a ballplayer.”

He, of course, had to be more than that.

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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