Film Reviews: Wednesday, October 08, 2008
The Express
Starring Rob Brown and Dennis Quaid. Directed by Gary Fleder. Written by Charles Leavitt, based on Robert Gallagher’s book. Rated PG.
Orange and Black

A historic Heisman victory turns into another ordinary sports flick.


First of all, The Express has nothing to do with Pineapple Express. It’s based on the life of Ernie Davis, the football player nicknamed “The Elmira Express” who became the first-ever African-American winner of the Heisman Trophy. (The term “Negro” was preferred back then, as the DELETE reflects.) In 1958 Davis entered Syracuse University to play running back for the Orangemen, following the legendary Jim Brown. His sparkling collegiate career included a national championship sealed by a win over the University of Texas at the 1960 Cotton Bowl, two first-team All-American honors, and a meeting with President John F. Kennedy. However, his football-playing days came to a sudden end in 1962 when he was diagnosed with leukemia. Less than a year later, he was dead at age 23.
Beyond his exploits on the field and his history-making Heisman win, Davis was best known for his courage in facing both the racism of his time and his terminal illness. Director Gary Fleder gives only a passing nod to the latter, though, because he’s more interested in the football. Fair enough, but the same shortcomings that marred Fleder’s thrillers (Don’t Say a Word, Impostor, Runaway Jury) rear their heads in this sports movie. They are most obvious in a sequence midway through, when he fails the relatively simple task of diagramming a football play. It’s good of him to try to show us how Syracuse’s coaches designed a series of shifts in their offensive sets that confused opposing defenses and sprang Davis for long runs. However, the director overcuts the sequence so that we can’t track where everybody is and who shifts where. Sports fans these days know from Madden (or Madden) about the intricacies of football plays. Fleder’s choppy visual treatment simply isn’t good enough.
Dennis Quaid portrays Syracuse head coach Ben Schwartzwalder, the sort of role he’s played a bit too often, while Rob Brown plays Davis, who’s written as a plaster saint. Brown never finds a way into the character, and the only time his performance really catches is during a conversation late in the film with the next great Syracuse running back, Floyd Little (Chadwick Boseman), when Davis suddenly finds a piece of wisdom he can pass on that lets him warm to the unfamiliar role of mentor.
As for the treatment of race relations, the movie does well with two game sequences, one a blowout win over West Virginia and the other that Cotton Bowl victory, when we take in the crowd in the stands. It’s one thing when a passing idiot shouts a racial epithet, but quite another to have a whole stadium of fans raining down that kind of hate. This movie brings home that feeling, but other than that, it doesn’t have much to say beyond the usual message of “racism sucks.” For its 129-minute running time, it provides little detail about the era or the people in the story. All in all, The Express is too much like the great majority of sports flicks. You’re better off spending two hours watching real-life football.

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