A version of this review appears in Friday’s Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman.
With its single superstar and its stable of stalwart utility players swinging for the fences, the long-awaited Jackie Robinson biopic “42” scores a solid win despite playing it a bit too safe.
When it debuted in cinemas in April, the by-the-book inspirational sports drama notched the best opening day ever for a baseball movie. The fact-based film was a long time coming: Although Robinson played himself in 1950′s “The Jackie Robinson Story,” the color barrier-breaking icon has been written about much more than he has been depicted on the big screen.
Still, writer-director Brian Helgeland (“A Knight’s Tale,” the Oscar-winning screenplay for “L.A. Confidential”) and lead actor Chadwick Boseman (“The Express”) wisely resist the urge to lionize Robinson as an icon, instead portraying him as a gifted player and affable if hotheaded young man.
The film, which takes its title from Robinson’s number, follows the Georgia native’s trailblazing 1947 rookie season through the eyes of his now-legendary chronicler, black sports journalist Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), who sets the segregated post-World War II scene.
Harrison Ford takes on a whole new look and gives his best performance in years as Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, a shrewd businessman and devoted fan of the game who decides the time is right for racial integration.
He starts searching for a young black player to with plenty of talent, a pleasant but not-too-nice personality and, most importantly, the stoutness to take the inevitable abuse without breaking down or hitting back. Plus, Robinson has a devoted wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie), willing to go to bat for him away from the field.
Ford may be the movie’s only A-lister, but sturdy players like Christopher Meloni, John C. McGinley and scene-stealer Alan Tudyk, whose gut-churning turn as Phillies manager Ben Chapman puts the racism Robinson faced into horrible words, help “42” get the W. Choctaw native Ryan Merriman does fine work portraying Dodgers right-fielder Dixie Walker, who leads Robinson’s teammates in signing a vow not to play with the rookie.
The Blu-ray comes with three making-of featurettes, but unfortunately, it doesn’t offer interviews with Robinson’s widow, who endorsed the film, nor deleted scenes to give us more of Ford’s strong performance.