Judge Clark Douglas thinks this lazy sports drama is uninspired by real events.
Inspired by real events.
"There will never be another Ernie Davis."
Facts of the Case
When Ernie Davis (Rob Brown, Stop-Loss) was a kid, he idolized Jackie Robinson. He was excited and inspired when he realized that it was possible for a black man to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and began to develop his own dreams of being an athletic superstar someday. With the encouragement of his grandfather (Charles S. Dutton, Rudy), Ernie developed his skills as a football player, and was being recruited by numerous universities during his high school years. This was particularly significant when one considers the fact that Davis was in high school during the 1950s, an era in which African-American athletes were still the considerable minority in the world of college sports.
One man was particularly eager to convince Davis to join the team. Syracuse head coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid, In Good Company) had the privilege of coaching the talented Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson, Stomp the Yard), and now is attempting to get his strong-willed star to help him recruit "the next Jim Brown." Brown is hesitant at first, but agrees to help out when he discovers just how talented Ernie Davis is. After much coaxing, Schwartzwelder succeeds, and Davis is heading off to Syracuse to begin life as a college student and football player.
It's not going to be as easy as Davis had hoped. Schwartzwelder turns out to be an extremely intense coach, and Davis also encounters forms of racism both subtle and not-so-subtle all over campus. Somehow, Davis works up the strength to overcomes his adversities and succeed both on and off the field. He quickly becomes known as one of the best players in college football, and continues to impress more people each weekend. Unfortunately, the biggest challenges of Davis' life are still ahead of him. Will Ernie Davis have the physical and mental endurance to make it through a series of very daunting situations?
You can't really say anything too bad about a movie like The Express, right? It's just the sort of movie that is very nearly critic-proof, simply because it is attached to so many noble causes. Ernie Davis was breaking racial barriers, creating an easy opportunity for the film to offer a condemnation of the abhorrent behavior that was common during that era. Additionally (spoiler alert, but nonetheless appropriate since we're dealing with a pretty well-known story), Davis tragically passed away at the age of 23 after a battle with leukemia. Even so, Davis accomplished a lot during his short life, becoming the first African-American to win the Heisman trophy. What a tragic, moving, inspirational true story, right? I recognize that the moving details of Davis' life have little to do with the quality of a film about him, but there is still the overwhelming sense that criticizing The Express is a bit like taking candy from a baby. It's incredibly easy to do, and no one will like you for doing it.
A great film could have been made about the life of Ernie Davis, but The Express isn't it. The cynic in me suggests that the film was not made because someone really wanted to tell this story, but rather because Davis' life could be very easily tweaked to resemble other successful "based-on-a-true story" sports movies. I can just picture the pitch meeting: "It's got racial conflict for the hero to overcome, just like Pride, Remember the Titans, and Pride and Glory. It's got a tragic but incredibly noble death caused by some horrible medical condition, just like Brian's Song and Pride of the Yankees. We can also get a star to play the coach who is tough, a little flawed, but ultimately a really great guy, just like in every sports movie. It'll be great!"
The Express is about a very courageous human being, but the film itself demonstrates a notable lack of courage. When it comes to dealing with racism, many mainstream films are frightened of nuance. This one is no exception. The racial tension is handled in a clunky, obvious manner that becomes a bit obnoxious. The usual cartoonish rednecks are onhand throughout the film to throw out racial slurs and offer evil glares. The Express doesn't have room for shades of gray…most of the characters in the film are noble saints or horrifying parasites. The film has a predictably self-righteous attitude about it's social values, but frankly, offering a stern condemnation of segregation and racism in a 21st Century film is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. Actually, it's more like shooting a whale in a bathtub. I'm particularly irritated by the fact that the filmmakers felt the need to invent "historical details" in order to add more punch to this part of their story. See the accomplices section for more information on this.
My biggest problem was that I never felt I was watching a film about real human beings. I felt like I was watching a story about the mythological versions of those human beings. In The Express, Ernie Davis is not so much a football player as a symbolic figure of hope. We never see him stumble or fail on the field, we only see touchdowns and remarkable plays. He seemingly never hurts anyone's feelings or does anything he should regret. He never makes a mistake or a bad decision. He is a flawless symbol of what humanity can achieve at their greatest, but he is not a real human being. Ernie Davis went out in his prime, which understandably elevated him from very talented individual to legendary hero. I'm sure that Rob Brown is a fine actor, but here he's only permitted to play one noble note from start to finish. The most interesting character in the film is Coach Schwartzwelder, simply because Quaid is permitted to explore the character's complexities.
The hi-def transfer here is a bit of a mixed bag. The image quality seems to vary from scene to scene, which was a bit distracting. One moment will offer some absolutely knockout images, while the following scene will seem surprisingly lacking in detail. Faint grain is present throughout the film, and facial detail is fairly solid. Blacks are deep enough, but the film does suffer from some black crush. The flashback sequences add in some intentional heavy grain to provide an "aged" look. Sound is stellar from start to finish, particularly during the action-packed football sequences. Sound design is well-distributed, but generally plays back-up to Mark Isham's effective (if atypically generic) original score. It's not a knockout track, but I have no complaints with the audio here.
Supplements are reasonably generous here. Things kick off with an audio commentary from director Gary Fleder, which is professional if a bit banal. Fleder also provides commentary for three minutes of deleted scenes, which are worth one look. Four featurettes are included here: "Making of the Express" (13 minutes), "Making History: The Story of Ernie Davis" (13 minutes), "Inside the Playbook: Shooting the Game" (7 minutes), and "From Hollywood to Syracuse: The Legend of Ernie Davis" (5 minutes). All of these are exactly what they sound like, standard-issue EPK-style pieces. They're engaging enough, but the best extra is a Blu-ray exclusive. That would be some footage from the 50th Anniversary of the 1959 Syracuse National Championship, which offers perspective on these events with a bit more historical accuracy. Finally, the disc is equipped with BD Live and My Scenes.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite the film's heavy-handed storytelling techniques, there's very little to complain about on a technical level. The film is crafted with a great deal of professionalism, very successfully capturing the era in which the story is set. The sepia-toned cinematography adds a lovely photo-album feel to the scenes of Davis' childhood, and the imagery throughout the rest of the film is equally evocative. The football games feel realistic and somewhat exciting, indicating that a lot of work was put into making this film look convincing. Too bad similar attention wasn't given to the screenplay.
The Express receives respectable treatment on Blu-ray, but I found the film itself to be inferior to similar genre efforts. It's uplifting and inspirational on a purely basic level, sure…but at the cost of historical integrity and artistic complexity.
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