glorifies the life of football player Ernie Davis. Despite its title (Davis was known as the Elmira Express), the film is in fact a pokey local to Schmaltzville.
In 1961, Davis was the first black player to win the Heisman Trophy, while playing for Syracuse University. He was the top choice in the NFL draft, but he never played in the pros, dying of leukemia at age 23.
So how do you transform what is essentially a tragedy into an inspirational tale? The Express accomplishes this, quite handily, by accentuating the positive and glossing over the messy parts.
For instance, the majority of the film is spent dramatizing the 1959 season, when Davis (not to be confused with Army's Glenn Davis, a prior Heisman-winning, white running back) was a sophomore. Syracuse went undefeated that year, beating Texas in the Cotton Bowl to claim the school's only national championship.
The Express shows not one down from the following two years when the team went 14-5. Still impressive, but not the stuff of legends. Conveniently, the film vaults right from the Bowl game to the Heisman ceremony.
Rob Brown (Finding Forrester) plays Davis with an unvarying but still appealing reverence. Dennis Quaid does a workmanlike job as crusty Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder who is slowly won over by Davis' quiet determination and dignity. (Clancy Brown, who plays Schwartzwalder's assistant, could probably have done a better job with Quaid's role.)
Actually, the best performances in the film emerge in far smaller roles: Charles Dutton as the football player's stern but soft-hearted grandfather and Saul Rubinek as color-blind Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell.
The '50s-period detail is quite convincing - the football action less so. One of the downfalls of jock films is that while the principal character is always splendidly athletic, the casting of everyone else on the field is usually laughable.
So it is here. Omar Benson Miller who plays lineman Jack Buckley, Davis' friend and fellow All-American, looks as if he couldn't run five yards if a bus were bearing down on him.
The story is told chronologically, albeit in stops and starts, beginning with Davis' early years in the coal-mining burg of Uniontown, Pa., where he apparently developed his breakaway speed by running away from homicidal white hooligans. He also overcomes a bad stuttering problem by reading aloud from the Bible.
The Waltons wasn't this mawkish.
At each level of his playing career, Davis is subjected to virulent racism, from screaming hometown fans to scheming referees to white opponents who, on those rare occasions when they could get him to the ground, pummeled him unmercifully after the whistle was blown. (If you root for the West Virginia Mountaineers, you might want go out to the lobby for popcorn during Syracuse's visit to Morgantown. It's that ugly.)
The film takes a wrenching detour during the team's cross-country bus ride to Dallas for its Cotton Bowl appearance. Director Gary Fleder gratuitously jams in newsreel footage of the Little Rock integration crisis and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to underscore how entrenched Jim Crow Laws still were in this period.
Like most fact-based athletic films, from the 1971 TV movie Brian's Song to the 2006 feature Glory Road, this bioflic is archly sentimental.
The Express eventually reaches its triumph-of-the-human-spirit climax, but it yanks too hard on the heart strings during the long journey there.
The Express ** (out of four stars)
Directed by Gary Fleder. With Rob Brown, Dennis Quaid, Darrin Dewitt Henson and Omar Benson Miller. Distributed by Universal Studios.
Running time: 2 hours, 9 mins.
Parent's guide: PG (racist themes, violence, profanity)
Playing at: area theatersEndText