In the grand tradition of celebrating little known holidays, plus the fact that not a whole lot came out this week, I propose that we dedicate today, April 15th, also known as Jackie Robinson Day, to take a look at the inspiring sports movie du jour, 42. I’m not a huge fan of sports movies in general; the last one I remember enjoying was Remember the Titians (2000) which coincidentally dealt with racial segregation in the South, and perhaps Invictus (2009) as well, which coincidentally dealt with racial segregation in the South of Africa. Perhaps suggesting that 42 is formulaic is an understatement.
Brian Helgeland, writer of a plethora of outstanding films such as L.A Confidential, Man on Fire, and A Knight’s Tale, takes a stab at this tribute to the life of Jackie Robinson. For what it’s worth, the film is very well cast, featuring the talents of Harrison Ford as the eccentric Branch Ricky and Chadwick Boseman as the up-and-coming superstar Robinson. I was also pleased to see a charming cameo appearance by John C. McGinley as charismatic radio announcer Red Barber, bringing some much needed spunk to the film. Strangely, though performances in general were all solid, all of the acting seemed to run together into some undefinable homogenous mass, with no real bright spots, yet virtually without flaw at the same time. Therein lies the root of 42’s problem.
I heard another critic refer the the film as something that could have almost been manufactured by a machine, which is the common trap that many sports movies fall into. By that, I mean that there are no real defining characteristics which elevate the film above its peers. I fear that without something- anything- to set 42 apart from the myriad other sports films in the past decade, it will very quickly be forgotten. The strange thing about the whole affair is that while it’s very competently strung together, with a coherent yet simplistic plot, decent acting, editing, direction, and score, it just feels so safe and committee-designed that there is nothing that can really be said about the film apart from the superficial. In many was, it’s kind of the Dead Space of the cinematic world. It’s so unchallenging and inoffensive that I can guarantee that we won’t be talking about it next year, or even next month for that matter.
I’m a little disappointed in Helgeland here (he wrote, as well as directed) because I know that he can offer us more than what we’re getting here. Man on Fire is one of my favorite movies for it’s rich and intriguing setting and deeply conflicted characters. That’s the kind of material I would expect from someone with a resume such as his. A flirtation is made with some more complex themes like fatherhood and family, but they’re only mentioned once, dropped, and then never explored again. I do think that a lot of the ultimate blandness, however, stems from the story that he was trying to tell. Granted, I understand that it would have been slightly disingenuous to make Robinson an ex-junkie trying to bounce back from a debilitating smack addiction, but in this instance, I believe that it would have helped Helgeland’s case to take some more daring artistic liberties.
As it stands, 42 is not a bad film, by any means, yet nothing that we haven’t seen before many times over. Though it has a decent yet unchallenging story competently told, there’s nothing here to talk about beyond the skin deep, mass marketable package that we end up with. Ultimately, it’s the same old inspiring sports story, albeit wearing a slightly different skin. That is to say, this time around, Jackie Robinson hits a home run and ends racism. I’d recommend 42 only to those hardcore fans of sports movies, but if that’s indeed the case, why not kick back at home and watch an actual sporting event?
Rating: 3 out of 5