Starring: Dennis Quaid, Rob Brown, Darrin Dewitt Henson
Directed by: Gary Fleder (“Runaway Jury”)
Written by: Charles Leavitt (“Blood Diamond”)
As far as inspirational true-life sports dramas go, there haven’t been too many in the past few years able to distinguish themselves from the rest. For every modern classic like “Friday Night Lights,” we are blitzed with less effective films like “Remember the Titans” and “Glory Road” unable to dodge formulaic plot points and over-emphasized sentimentality.
In “The Express,” the football drama takes the usual route toward forced emotion by unavoidably playing the race card for a majority of its runtime. Yes, the true story of footballer Ernie Davis (Rob Brown) takes place in the late 50’s when racism in America was at its most alarming, but screenwriter Charles Leavitt spoon-feeds so much black-versus-white verbiage and unnecessary conflict, you’ll think he’s been studying Paul Haggis’ cliffnotes on thematic overkill.
Based on Robert C. Gallagher’s book “Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express,” the film follows Ernie’s collegiate football career (he was the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy) and short-lived life, which ended during his rookie year in the NFL after being diagnosed with leukemia.
As a young boy, Ernie realized his passion for running would take him anywhere (a la Forrest Gump) when his quick feet save him from a group of white, troublemaking kids looking for a fight. His natural athletic ability would later lead him into the college football ranks where Syracuse University and Coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) manage to lure him away from his other suitors with the recruiting assistance of Syracuse alumnus and Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson).
Ernie’s not quite comfortable being helmed the second coming of Brown (Coach makes him wear No. 44, Brown’s old jersey number), but as a fan of Brooklyn Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson when he was a child, he understands the positive influence an upstanding and talented black man can have on a repressed black community, and is starstruck when Brown shows interest in his running game. As one of only three black players on the team, however, it’s no easy task to integrate as older teammates take offense to him being on the varsity squad and when his ambiguously bigoted coach calls him into his office to give him the “white girl speech,” which basically forbids him to date outside his race.
While “The Express” continues to hammer the obvious elements into an already unstable script (every white character acts like they’ve been ripped from “The Jerry Springer Show”), the film is less concerned about pounding the ball down the field and capturing authenticity between opposing teams. It tries to be gritty with cinematography tricks, but “The Express” feels lax and imitative. There are some action sequences on the gridiron that actually feel like 30-second Super Bowl spots with all the overproduced sound effects (do I hear buffalo stampeding during kickoffs?) and a stale score featuring military cadences. All this leads up to an anticlimactic and longwinded fourth quarter that would have benefited from some skilled editing. While Davis’ biography is extremely noteworthy, even he knew running up the score while you’re ahead isn’t very sportsmanlike.