October 16, 2008

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The Express (PG)
Ernie Davis earns his spot in college football history in The Express, a blandly uplifting biopic set in the early 1960s.

Young Ernie Davis (Justin Martin) learned how to be the fastest runner by keeping ahead of bullies as a child. Even though he wasn’t particularly well treated by his boyhood football team, he puts these skills to good use, and by high school in the late 1950s Ernie (Rob Brown) is a standout player being courted by several universities. One of them is Syracuse, where coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) is about to lose his most dynamic player with the graduation of Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson). Brown, like Davis, is African-American, so Schwartzwalder takes a somewhat reluctant Brown on the recruiting trip to Davis’s home town, where Brown tells Davis that his years at Syracuse will not be easy but they will make him a better football player.

Cue the scenes of Davis being mistreated and mistrusted by his white teammates and finding as his only friend fellow African-American Orangeman/schoolmate Jack Buckley (Omar Benson Miller). Assuming you don’t know the story of Davis already, it’s hard to go beyond this plot description and keep from giving away too much of this extremely predictable story. You could boil it all down to this: the African-American players have to deal with static from their fellow Syracuse players and varying amounts of more violent racism from opposing teams and their fans, but they persevere, eventually winning respect from school, teammates and society at large.

Seeing this movie as I did on the same day as The Secret Life of Bees it occurred to me that I probably don’t have the patience to live in a society that aggressively oppresses me. Where Ernie Davis holds off on reacting to every slight and says he’ll “do my talking on the field,” I think I would be inclined to just punch people in the face and then take my ball and go home. I would probably not have inspirational biopics created about me.

There are hints of this urge to punch from some of the characters in this story but not much and not often. Overall, Davis nobly rises above, which is commendable but leaves you feeling like you never really penetrate the surface of his personality. This movie is like a long magazine profile heavy on the glossy attractive photos but light on real insights into the man’s personality or thoughts, from either himself or anybody else.

A very long magazine article — for something this light on depth, The Express does rather drag on. Since it didn’t fill the time with character development and more than just the bare bones of historical context, this movie easily could have ended 30 minutes earlier and still given us the whole story.

The actors aren’t given much to do (the entirety of Quaid’s direction seems to be “look like you’re having severe abdominal pains”) but Rob Brown remains likeable nonetheless. If your love of football — and this movie does offer plenty of loving lingering shots of the football field — is enough to keep you enthralled, The Express will be acceptably decent entertainment. If you have but a passing interest in Ernie Davis, who he was and what he did, well, that’s what Wikipedia and those moments at the end of your workday are for. C+

Rated PG for thematic content, violence and language involving racism, and for brief sensuality. Directed by Gary Fleder and written by Charles Leavitt (from a book by Robert Gallagher), The Express is two hours and 10 minutes long and distributed in wide release by Universal Pictures.