- Rated PG-13
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All photos © Universal
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
f there’s anything less original than an inspirational sports movie, it’s one that uses racism as its main plot device. These films are a dime a dozen these days, but that doesn’t mean they still don’t make for great stories. The tragic tale of Ernie Davis – who died of leukemia at the age of 23 before he ever got to play a single down in the NFL – is exactly the kind of story that Hollywood loves, but anyone expecting another “Brian’s Song” will be terribly disappointed. “The Express” isn’t built around Davis’ untimely death, but rather the many achievements he accomplished in his short life. And though it’s really no more different than the many other race-fueled football movies of the last decade, “The Express” still manages to entertain.
The movie begins in 1950 where a young Ernie Davis first realizes that he wants to play professional football. It’s during an altercation with a group of white kids over some empty soda bottles, and when he refuses to hand them over, he’s forced to outrun them using his incredible speed and reflexes. Eight years later, Davis (Rob Brown) is an All-State running back for his high school in Elmira, New York, and though Notre Dame is heavily pursuing him, Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) is desperate to snatch him up first. That’s where Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson) comes in to play.
Recently drafted by the Cleveland Browns, the departure of the all-star running back has left a hole in Schwartzwalder’s team, and so he asks Brown to convince Davis to sign with Syracuse. Davis accepts, and though he’s not even eligible to play as a freshman, Schwartzwalder places him on the varsity team anyways – knowing that having him practice with the first-team will not only prepare Davis for the following season, but it’ll also make his defense better. When Davis’ chance finally does arrive, it’s met with extreme racism, from a particularly violent road game at West Virginia to the 1959 championship game at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas.
Though the whole “evil white racists” routine is really beginning to wear on me, it’s hard to deny that these two sequences are some of the best moments in the film. They’re also some of the only football scenes in a football movie, which might piss off those who were expecting a little more in that department. It’s like an episode of “Friday Night Lights,” where the drama just so happens to be taking place on a football field. Thankfully, the dynamic between Davis and Schwartzwalder is just interesting enough that you never lose interest as a viewer. The characters might not be very magnetic on their own, but their relationship is one of the more unique elements of the tale. It’s surprising that it works as well as it does, because Rob Brown is pretty one-dimensional as Ernie Davis, while Dennis Quaid fails to bring anything new to the role of the grizzled coach that we haven't seen before.
Those kind of cardboard cutout performances are to be expected from a movie as overdone as this, and so the only major complaint that one could have with “The Express” is that it’s way too long. The whole point of the film is that Davis was the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy (something he didn’t do until his senior year), but instead of ending the movie there, it keeps chugging along (no pun intended) for another 20 minutes. Director Gary Fleder could have just as easily thrown up a brief note about how Davis was drafted by the Browns, diagnosed with leukemia, and died at 23, but instead, the audience has to watch it all unfold.
Why Fleder feels it necessary to include this part of Davis’ life is beyond me, but it must have something to do with his incapability as a director. After all, you don’t cast a great character actor like Clancy Brown and stick him in the background unless you have no idea what you’re doing, and though Fleder’s incompetence doesn’t change the fact that “The Express” is still a decent sports flick, it will make you wonder how much better it could have been with someone else in charge.
Single-Disc Blu-Ray Review:
It would be easy to dismiss Universal’s Blu-ray release of “The Express” for the lack of the studio’s trademark U-Control feature were the rest of the extras not so solid. All of the bare essentials have been included – directory commentary, deleted scenes, making-of featurette – but the real gems of the set are those that focus on the real-life Ernie Davis. “Making History” is a short but sweet compilation of interviews from friends and former teammates discussing Ernie’s legacy, while the Blu-ray exclusive “50th Anniversary of the 1959 Syracuse National Championship” offers a more historical look at the season leading up to the championship game.