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STUDIO: Universal Studios
RUNNING TIME: 130 minutes
• Commentary with director Gary Fleder
• Making of The Express
• Making History: The Story of Ernie Davis
• Inside the Playbook: Shooting the Football Games
• From Hollywood to Syracuse: The Legend of Ernie Davis
• Deleted scenes
It’s Brian’s Song starring Everybody’s All American.
Dennis Quaid, Rob Brown, Charles S. Dutton, Darrin Hewitt Denson, Omar Benson Miller, Nicole Beharie.
Ernie Davis of Syracuse University was the first Black college player to win the Heisman Trophy, the college football MVP award, in 1961. He was recruited to Syracuse by his hero, Jim Brown, and after an extraordinary college career, including guiding the Orangemen to the 1959 national championship, was set to join Brown in the backfield of the Cleveland Browns. But before he could take a professional snap, Ernie Davis contracted leukemia and died at the age of 23. Set against the racial turbulence of the late ’50s and early ’60s, The Express tells his story.
I’m a college football fan and have a pretty good sense of the history of the sport, but I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t ever really heard of Ernie Davis. Davis is someone that history has nearly forgotten, which is surprising considering that a lot of us are reflecting on past Black heroes and inspirations with the recent election of Barack Obama. Considering that Davis’ origins and story are virtually identical to that of Jim Brown, who’s generally regarded as the greatest football player ever, and that Davis was both a friend and mirror image to him on the field, this is even more surprising. But Davis was an incredible talent and individual who simply didn’t have the benefit of time that Brown had.
Schwartzwalder: “So when they make a movie about this, Jim, whom do you want to play you?”
Brown: “Shit, I’m gonna play myself. I got plans after football…”
Regarding his story in The Express, it’s told in middle-of-the-road fashion by director Gary Fleder, making his first theatrical film since 2003’s Runaway Jury, and portrayed by Rob Brown. The main issue facing the film is that it’s invariably going to get lumped in with similar stock such as We Are Marshall, Remember the Titans and Glory Road: movies inspired by real life events. And well, it should, honestly. The Express follows the rules established by those films and others, but lacks the raw emotion of say, a Brian’s Song. The movie is laid out matter-of-factly, without really giving a true sense of who Ernie Davis really was.
“Okay, slant route z-axis gangsta Superman La-Z-Boy Dead Zone cover one wingnut hand jive h-swing 3-D glasses flipside option on 2.”
“Give it to Ernie.”
The Express hits all of the story marks it’s supposed to, but takes no risks and falls into a lot of the cliches that movies of this type usually do. Plus, it handles key issues such as the racism prevalent in the era like Jim Brown or Earl Campbell rather than Jerry Rice. In other words, it rolls over you rather finesses you with it. There are no surprises in The Express, and it’s laid out exactly like you’d expect it to be. We see Davis’ humble beginnings from literally the wrong side of the tracks in Uniontown, PA, to his high school career in New York and indoctrination into the college game under the tutelage of Syracuse Coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Quaid).
CHUD’s taking the Orangemen and the points on this one if anyone’s interested…
Rob Brown is affecting as Davis, but unfortunately he’s given a strict playbook of how to portray him and the movie follows this story as more of the character of how Ernie Davis was, rather than offering true insights into the man himself. It tries, including a subplot involving going to a church meeting with family member, Will Davis (Nathan Ellis), who’s involved with the beginnings of the more vocal civil rights movement. But in other matters, such as being inspired by Jackie Robinson, arriving at Syracuse and looking at the trophy case with Brown’s awards and all of the Orangemen legends, Davis comes off as an idealistic, wide-eyed kid.
“That was a complete bullshit call! Whadda ya think, Roy?”
“Bunch of ball washin’ bastards. They’re gonna look real good suckin’ my dick with no teeth. You say the word and I swear by God and sonny Jesus I’ll sing those maggot dick motherfuckers a lullaby, Coach.”
Quaid portrays Schwartzwalder in predictable fashion, as the open-minded yet traditional coach who was wary of drafting another potential Jim Brown, with whom he had his battles both on the field and off. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Brown’s and Quaid’s portrayals, it’s just that there’s nothing outstanding by how the characters are written and thus not much to work with. The Express is a very safe movie, not doing much to stand out from the crowd and covering all of the usual material. Anything you might expect to see in this film you will. In regards to the on-the-field action, it’s fine and also pretty much what you’d expect.
Well, the Browns had to have at least one good memory on the field…
Perhaps this is all due to the fact that Davis wasn’t known for being as outspoken or hard to handle as Brown. Be that as it may, however, The Express is just okay really; not bad but certainly not outstanding. If you liked We Are Marshall, et al, you’ll like this film as well, even though it can all-too-neatly be filed away in the sports section of the DVD rack.
The film looks good in 2.4:1 Anamorphic and offers both English and Spanish Dolby 5.1, with accompanying subtitles including French. There’s a commentary by director Gary Fleder and four standard featurettes, The Making of The Express, Making History: the Story of Ernie Davis, Inside the Playbook: Shooting the Football Games, and From Hollywood to Syracuse: The Legacy of Ernie Davis, which total about forty minutes. Seven minutes of deleted scenes with optional Fleder commentary round out the special features.