The Express is a well-meaning inspirational football film--even if it seems like it comes directly out of some sort of Hollywood playbook for sports movies.
Based on the true story of Ernie Davis, the first black athlete ever to win college football's prized Heisman Trophy, The Express effectively details the struggle this man went through in the '50s and early '60s. Starting when he is a young boy, living with his grandfather (Charles S. Dutton) in the deep South, Davis (Rob Brown) shows a penchant for football, and with the support of his family, he wins a scholarship to Syracuse University, where he follows in the storied footsteps of Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson). Welcomed by coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid), Davis is soon the star of the team. But racism rears its ugly head, not just with rivals, but also among fans attending the games and even among some of his own teammates, including the obnoxious Bob Lundy (Geoff Stults). Davis' climb to the top ranks of the college game, his quest to join the pros and follow Brown to Cleveland, and a personal life-changing tragedy are all detailed with heart.
As Davis, Rob Brown acquits himself nicely and is totally convincing as one of the all-time college football greats. He uncovers the passion, drive and sheer determination of a player who triumphed against personal and societal odds to become a legendary champion. Along with Justin Martin's (as the young Ernie) contributions, we get the full picture of a poor Southern boy who never stopped overcoming whatever drawbacks life threw at him. Quaid, as the legendary Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder, is wonderful, losing himself completely in the soul of a man who guided the early careers of two of the greatest African-American athletes ever. With a craggy face, cap and heavy glasses, Quaid seems like the real thing. In his few scenes, Dutton registers warmly as Davis' grandfather. As friend and teammate Jack Buckley, Omar Benson Miller proves his bravura turn in Miracle at St. Anna was no fluke. He brings humor and smarts to a nice supporting role. Stults is rather one dimensional as the race-baiting Lundy, but the script doesn't give him much more than that.
Director Gary Fleder tries hard to steer this story away from the conventional traps of the sports movie genre but doesn't really succeed. This is standard issue, inspirational stuff that we have seen a hundred times. Like the best of these formula dramas however, it's the individual story and struggle we can relate to. Fortunately for all involved, Ernie Davis has an amazing story to tell--particularly in the film's final act. For those who don't like football, however, the generous dose of it on display here will probably send you over the edge. Fleder clearly figures audiences drawn to The Express are there for the pigskin action, and he delivers with brilliantly choreographed and edited recreations of Davis' dazzling career on the field. With music ramped up, crowd excitement at a fever pitch and very impressive moves from the key actors, this is some of the most authentic game action we've seen in a long time. For fans of the game, and one of its greatest young players, The Express throws a cinematic touchdown.
Hollywood.com rated this film 3 stars.