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The Express   C+

Universal Pictures

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Gary Fleder
Writer: Charles Leavitt (based on the book by Robert Gallagher)
Cast: Rob Brown, Dennis Quaid, Omar Benson Miller, Darrin DeWitt Henson, Charles S. Dutton, Justin Martin, Geoff Stults.

Review by Rob Vaux

The Express doesn't exactly trip over its shoelaces, nor does it present anything worthy of harsh criticism. It's not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. But it slips far too easily into the preset biopic mold, which greatly diminishes its otherwise honorable assets. It treats its subject -- legendary Syracuse running back Ernie Davis -- with reverence and respect, it hits the preselected marks with nary a missed step, and it never displays any inclination to do anything unexpected or extraordinary with its source material. Something much better could have emerged here. Instead, we have to settle for business as usual.

As director Gary Fleder is quick to tell us, Davis was special for reasons that had nothing to do with his exploits on the football field. He came of age on the cusp of the Civil Rights movement, when African-Americans began asserting themselves in force and segregationists fought back with savage hate. The Express takes great pains to tie his story into the larger social movement around it. Davis (Rob Brown) grows up dirt poor in Pennsylvania, raised by his grandfather (Charles S. Dutton) and developing a knack for running while being chased by gangs of white kids. College football programs eventually come sniffing around, as the talent of prospective players finally begins to outweigh the discomfort at putting black men on the field. Davis eventually chooses Syracuse, in part because it means following in the footsteps of Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson) and in part because head coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) makes it sound like heaven on earth.

The bulk of the film concerns the push and pull between those two father figures (Davis's own father died when he was very young and Fleder can't resist the easy motif). Brown's glowering pride masks a lifetime of second-class treatment, and Davis is painfully aware of the long shadow cast by his predecessor. Schwartzwalder just wants to win football games and is willing to overlook his vague distaste for African-Americans to do it. Davis -- quiet and unassuming -- is pulled between the nascent assertiveness of the former and the "go along to get along" urgings of the latter. He eventually forges his own third path, leading Syracuse to its first national championship and racking up enough numbers to earn the first Heisman Trophy ever awarded to an African-American.

Fleder has a good eye for period detail and invests the football games themselves with an earnest sense of excitement. The shots of Syracuse University ring true (with a little CGI erasure of contemporary structures like the Carrier Dome) as does the film's depiction of being a prominent black man in that time and place. The Express plants the seeds of racial strife during the early childhood scenes, then builds them up slowly -- the passive cold shoulders in New York, the sniggering comments from teammates, the active vitriol in away-game stadiums like the University of West Virginia -- before finally reaching its predictable climax at the 1960 Cotton Bowl. With 75,000 racist Texans howling for Davis's blood, and Brown watching silently from the stands, could there be any outcome other than the one which eventually unfolds?

Of course, the real Davis didn't know that at the time and his masterful performance during the game is one of the reasons why there's a film about him now. But it also demonstrates the tricky line The Express is forced to walk. It needs to be true to the facts of the man's life, and yet it also has to adhere to the needs of stirring drama. They don't always mix. Fleder shows a deep respect for key elements, from Davis' early stammer to the emerging leukemia which cost him a pro career (and ultimately his life). He's reverent, too, towards the history of Syracuse University, taking pains to connect Davis not only with Brown, but with the great Floyd Little (Chadwick Boseman) who followed them both as an Orangeman. All three men wore number 44 -- a very special number at Syracuse -- and The Express uses their connection to reflect how gradual progress is made in arenas that have nothing to do with touchdowns.

But that accuracy has a way of interfering with the storytelling. In part, we've seen it all before -- the sports clichés of endless practices and individuals coming together as a team to win the big game are combined with message-picture chestnuts about standing up for yourself against caricatured bigots who just don't get it. (Quaid helps out a little in that department as a basically decent man slow to acknowledge the inevitability of change, but he's fighting the film's overall simplicity to do it.) More pertinently, the rhythms of a given life aren't always conducive to the needs of movie formula. Davis won the Heisman two years after his Cotton Bowl triumph, and his fight with leukemia continued for several years after that. In trying to encapsulate it all, The Express dribbles away its dramatic impetus, unable to coalesce into an appropriately stirring finale.

Thankfully, Fleder never descends past the point of basic competence, and you could make the argument that the lessons here are still pertinent. Rush Limbaugh's inexcusable comments about Donovan McNabb (another Orangeman) were just a few short years ago and race has begun to edge its way into the current presidential campaign as well. The Express makes a decent enough fulcrum for discussing those issues and it struck a chord with me on a purely personal note since Syracuse is my alma mater. But as a movie, it remains in the realm of the merely pedestrian. Not too bad, not exceptionally good, but relentlessly competent in the way that so many other films never transcend. That makes an awkward fit for one such as Davis, telling his extraordinary story in distressingly ordinary terms. The Express knows what made the man great. It just has difficulty embodying that greatness itself.

Review published 10.10.2008.

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