October 09, 2008

The Express

If I'm playing the Express, why do you get top billing?

Grade: C +

Director: Gary Fleder

Starring: Rob Brown, Dennis Quaid, Darrin Dewitt Henson, Omar Benson Miller, and Charles S. Dutton

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 2 hours, 9 minutes

The Express might be the story of Ernie Davis (Rob Brown), the first African-American to win college football’s Heisman Trophy. But, it is the recurring apparition of Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson), Davis’ late-1950s running back predecessor at Syracuse University, whose personal complexity and heft all-too-fleetingly transcend an otherwise paint-by-bigot biopic.

Charles Leavitt’s (Blood Diamond) screenplay, adapted from a biography by author Robert Gallagher, decides to focus mostly on Davis’ sophomore season with the Orangemen, when they battled to an undefeated season and a NCAA championship. In an extended coda, the film then flash forwards as Davis wins the Heisman, is drafted as the first overall pick in the NFL craft by the Cleveland Browns, and is tragically stricken with incurable leukemia. Even clocking in at an overlong 2 hour-plus running time, it is a compelling story that is both heart-warming and heart-wrenching.

Why, then, does director Gary Fleder fall back a rote of soft focus visuals and sports clich├ęs? Whites are raging racists, African-Americans are noble and virtuous, and in middle is Coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid), an imperfect personification of the conflicting camps in pre-Civil Rights America. Every gallop by Davis is momentous, every game a microcosm of societal struggle, and everywhere musical swells ordain the audience’s emotional response; seriously, will someone please tell these directors they need not saturate every moment of screen time with fanfares and flourishes?

Quaid’s blustery brio keeps matters entertaining, and Rob Brown’s (Finding Forrester) quiet dignity single-handedly elevates Davis above the hackneyed fray. But, the film fares best only when graded on a curve, compared to such woeful kinsman as Glory Road and Remember the Titans. The Express the best of both worlds: A glowing hagiography laced with social commentary. What it achieves is less fulsome: A TV-worthy biopic following a dog-eared playbook.

Neil Morris

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