Ernie Davis was the first African-American to win football’s Heisman Trophy. The passage of time and the brevity of his career and life have made him a forgotten figure, something the workmanlike football drama “The Express” aims to change. But it’s a movie that rarely strays from its sports-drama formula, something that robs the history and the tragic trajectory of the man’s story of its heart.
Davis, “the Elmira Express,” followed Jim Brown to Syracuse University, wore Brown’s number, faced racism on campus and when he traveled with the team down South. Inspired first by Jackie Robinson, then by his idol, Jim Brown, Davis (Rob Brown) became racially aware, and insisted that his “don’t make waves” coach (Dennis Quaid) see what he represented and let him make a stand for racial equality in the America of the early 1960s.
“There are some lines people don’t want to see crossed,” Coach Schwartzwalder tells Davis. And for a while, he’s willing to go along with that. But playing in front of a racist crowd against racist players, Davis has an epiphany. He won’t let them, or his coach’s timidity, keep him from getting right in their faces. He will pile up the yardage. He will score touchdowns. And you know that when he takes Syracuse to the Cotton Bowl to face Texas, America is going to take notice and college football will never be the same.
Director Gary Fleder (“Runaway Jury,” “Imposter”) treats this story with such reverence that he rarely lets us see the flesh-and-blood Davis. Racial strife in the locker room, light moments of dating and the many, many game sequences are all played at the same “This is important sports history” pitch – very dry. The football games are well-filmed, but the movies have done well by football for decades, now. Nothing new there.
Brown is solid, Quaid is aging into a nice curmudgeon, Charles Dutton lends a little supporting class (as Davis’s grandfather) to the proceedings and Darrin Dewitt Henson suggests Jim Brown’s chip on his shoulder and his stature, if not Brown’s baritone.
Although “The Express” is a decently crafted movie, it fails to generate much heat or emotion, which is a let-down, considering its “Brian’s Song” story arc. Davis deserves to be remembered, but as professionally crafted as “The Express” is, the movie is an almost instantly forgettable version of his life.