Home | Review Archive | The Bucket 'Blog | Screening Log | Film Festival Coverage | Contact Danny


  The Express

Starring: Rob Brown, Dennis Quaid, Nelsan Ellis, Kris Wolff, Charles S. Dutton

Directed by: Gary Fleder

Produced by: John Davis

Written by: Robert C. Gallagher, Charles Leavitt

Distributor: Universal Pictures


     For the first act of The Express, the latest paint-by-numbers biopic to tackle past American black-and-white race-relations, I found myself scheming as to how to knock the picture’s conventional and basic take on its material. I thought about posing what I thought at the time was a pretty good question: does The Express’ first-grade-friendly approach to conveying rough history weaken the historical record of the profound struggle that its subject, African-American college football star Ernie Davis (Rob Brown), had to endure to become the first man of his color to win the Heisman Trophy? Up to that point, all the film had done for me was proven that Davis was a figure just like every other black man who fought for equality depicted in cinema because it offered no fresh narrative or thematic substance. Even though The Express would make viewers aware of a largely unknown and remarkable human being, I thought, it was doubtful that said viewers would come to understand his life on the level it deserved.


     Soon after I formulated the aforementioned criticism, however, my cynic’s hat flew off and The Express sucked me in. After a heavy-handed opening featuring Ernie’s youth and a standard look at the struggle of Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson), a skilled black football player who was slighted of the Heisman years earlier, the movie finds its rhythm. Such an abrupt change doesn’t come because the film suddenly gets more complex; instead, the film begins to work as a good sports picture and the viewer can thereby appreciate its subject within the confines of this genre. Davis begins to play football for Syracuse University after being recruited by Brown himself (per his old coach’s orders) and the exercise no longer feels exclusively like a view of what it once meant to be black in America. Instead, it’s the story of how Davis’ exceptional skill allowed him to break down racial barriers told through the entertaining lens of a riveting season of college football.


     As is the case in any good football movie, Davis’ team faces ups and downs in maintaining its undefeated record and the audience experiences these right with the players. The movie continues to interject race-related commentary as it reaches a climax in which Davis’ Syracuse Orangemen prepare to play the NCAA Championship in Texas, a region where Davis and two fellow black teammates must risk their lives to play because of the natives’ hatred towards blacks, but this flows organically from the material (unlike in the first act). Even when director Gary Fleder throws in an overwrought symbol on the topic—a shot in which Ernie shares a frame with a waving U.S. flag in the background at the end of the championship to symbolize his realization of the American Dream comes instantly to mind—the film is not off-putting.


     While I ultimately enjoyed The Express for its symbiotic balance of football and history, I won’t try to make the case that my initial view that the movie offers a rather basic take on Davis’ career has changed. Indeed, I stick by my introductory comment that the picture is “paint-by-numbers.” And yet I am able to forgive it for its shortcoming. This is mainly because, as I said, it is an exceptionally well-made sports-movie. Director Fleder perfectly mounts the tension of each game-play and largely avoids football-genre gimmicks. Dennis Quaid plays Ernie’s coach at Syracuse in a performance that likewise sidesteps traditional sports-movie clichés and shows the coach as both a flawed human and an enduring servant to his players. The list of redeeming-features goes on and on. Older viewers will be able to understand that the movie underscores everything Davis had to go through and will simply appreciate it for its take on an era’s college football. Young audience members will be able learn about black-history in an approachable manner and be captivated by the story, especially if they like football as much as I did when I was a kid. The Express may not be profound, but it marks a respectable effort to highlight the great accomplishments of a running-back whose name is unfamiliar to all too many of us.


-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 10.8.2008

Screened on: 10.4.2008 at the AMC Burbank 16 in Burbank, CA.


The Express is rated PG and runs 130 minutes.

Back to Home