As far as inspirational true-life sports dramas go, few contenders stand out in the field. For every modern classic like Friday Night Lights, we are blitzed with less effective films like Remember the Titans and Glory Road, movies that are unable to dodge formulaic plot points and over-emphasized sentimentality.
In The Express, the football drama takes a common route toward forced emotion by playing the race card for the majority of its runtime. Yes, the true story of footballer Ernie Davis (Rob Brown) takes place in the late ’50s when white racism in America was inflamed by desegregation and the civil-rights movement, but screenwriter Charles Leavitt spoon-feeds so much black-versus-white verbiage and unnecessary conflict, you’d think he’s been studying the Paul Haggis guide to 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 life, which ended during his rookie year in the NFL after he was diagnosed with leukemia.
As a young boy, Ernie realized his passion for running could take him anywhere (a la Forrest Gump) when his quick feet saved him from a group of troublemaking white kids looking for a fight. His natural athletic ability would later lead him into the college football ranks where Syracuse University Coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) manages to lure Davis 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 dubbed the second coming of Brown (Coach makes him wear 44, Brown’s old jersey number), but as a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson, he understands the positive influence an upstanding and talented black man can have on a repressed black community, and he’s 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 at his spot on the varsity squad and 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’re modeled after Jerry Springer Show guests), the film is less concerned with pounding the ball down the field or capturing authentic rivalry between opposing teams. Cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau attempts to give the film a gritty look, 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 over-produced 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
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