"The Express" tells of a true story both inspirational and tragic. The cinematic treatment it has received is neither. Becoming the inaugural person in his family to make it to college, Ernie Davis gained notoriety playing football for three seasons (1959-1961) at Syracuse University, was voted "Most Valuable Player" at the 1960 Cotton Bowl, and, in 1961, became the first black athlete to be awarded the prestigious Heisman Trophy. His draft into the NFL, where he was to have played for the Cleveland Browns, ultimately was not to be. Diagnosed with leukemia just as his career was about to take off, he lost his battle with the disease on May 18, 1963.
Director Gary Fleder (2003's "Runaway Jury
") and Charles Leavitt (2006's "Blood Diamond
"), intent on eking out all the clichés they can conceivably fit within a two-hour timespan, have come close to doing a disservice to the short but influential life of Ernie Davis (played by Rob Brown). "The Express" is shallow and mundane, treated like every other cut-and-paste sports movie inspired by real events. Failing to properly explore who Davis really wasor, for that matter, who any of the walking onscreen mirages posing as human beings werethe film moronically tosses aside the chance to treat this story with the maturity and respect it deserves. Instead, the viewer can expect multiple upbeat montage sequences spaced out between forgettable interactions involving one-note characters, cowardly scenes that shy away from facing the realities of racism in the 1960s, and a Cliffs' Notes version of Ernie's life that turns everything he worked for into a Hallmark card.
Rather than delving into how Ernie reacted and dealt with the knowledge of his dire illness, the third act washes over this stuff (and the realities of cancer, to boot) and rejoins him after he has already made peace with it. There is an effective, if overly manipulative, scene near the end where Ernie agrees to see an eager potential college recruit and gives the admiring football player words of advice about playing things smart, staying honest with oneself, and never taking for granted what you've got. Save for this and another moment where Ernie holds a press conference and speaks positively about his prognosis even as something much darker is written on his face, "The Express" is pretty much worthless.
If the screenplay by Charles Leavitt is a faithful adaptation of Robert Gallagher's credited biography "Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express," then said biography must be a children's picture book. Within the first ten minutes, Ernie's childhood is boiled down to the following: he outruns a group of white boys who don't like him on their turf; his grandfather (Charles S. Dutton), whom he lives with, helps him overcome a stutter; and his mother (Aunjanue Ellis) returns to take him to their new home in the small New York town of Elmira. Once the picture moves forward to Ernie's glory days in college, it haphazardly consists almost entirely of scenes set on the football field or in the locker room. After initial dirty glares from the other students when he first arrives at Syracuse, his adversity becomes a non-issue and he seems to blend in swimmingly. No mention is ever made of where he livesa dorm?because it is so sporadic that he is even seen doing anything other than practice football. Furthermore, there isn't a classroom scene in sightthis must be a magical college where education does not existand his romance with the angelic Sarah (Nicole Behaire) boils down to four short scenes that flimsily pose as a subplot the viewer is supposed to care about.
Meanwhile, Coach Ben Schwarzwalder (Dennis Quaid) stands along the sidelines, spouting pearls of faux-wisdom whenever he isn't looking suspiciously constipated. His character development is non-existent, and his life is seen as one that exists solely within the confines of his wholly football-centric screentime. Something similar could be said about Ernie's friend and teammate Jack Buckley (Omar Benson Miller), who is characterized by physical traits in lieu of personality. The rest of the players on Syracuse's football team are virtual extras, and yet we are expected to get behind them and have a good time as we watch them train, carouse and act a fool in a variety of montage clips. The big game1960's Cotton Bowlacts as a finale even though there is still another thirty minutes proceeding it. This and the other game scenes are generally shot and edited without energy, too reliant on slow motion and a spectacularly odd glimmering effect that looks as if Vaseline has been smeared on the camera lens.
Rob Brown, previously of 2005's basketball drama "Coach Carter
," and Dennis Quaid, of 2002's baseball-plotted "The Rookie
," continue to corner the market in tired sports flicks. Brown is the lead as Ernie Davis, but the film has done such an inadequate job of defining him as a person that it's easy to forget him even when he's front and center. As Coach Ben Schwarzwalder, Quaid has so little to do that it's almost ridiculous someone of his acting caliber would agree to the part. The rest of the cast members make the impression of ghosts on a mattress.
"The Express" has no excuse for its sheer emptiness. With a narrative that jigs and jags erratically and sports conventions that would only seem fresh to Orville Redenbacher, the film is deprived of emotional power. Predictability, then, overwhelms. Yes, there's an injury with a player, and yes, there are people shown cheering as they watch the final game in their homes or at the local bar, and yes, there is a locker room speech, and yes, and yes, and yes. For a motion picture about a person who came from nothing and, in only twenty-three years' time, made history, "The Express" feels trite and insignificant.