At times stirring, inspiring and thoughtful, "The Express" tells the life story of football player Ernie Davis, who in 1961 became the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy. Recruited to play at Syracuse University in part to replace legendary running back Jim Brown, Davis would help lead the team through an undefeated season in 1959 and win the national championship. Diagnosed with leukemia just after being selected No. 1 overall in the NFL draft, he would never play a single game of professional football.
Directed by Gary Fleder, and adapted by Charles Leavitt from the book "Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express" by Robert Gallagher, the film is at its best when it is ambitious in its storytelling. As Syracuse's 1959 championship season dovetails with the civil rights movement and Davis' own burgeoning social consciousness, the team is forced to confront racism at every turn -- the African American players on the team are refused entry to hotels, suffer epithets and abuse from opposing fans and players, and Davis (Rob Brown) is barred from an awards ceremony where he was named MVP -- making every win along the way seem like something bigger.
By the time of the national championship game in Texas, the film has built up to a moment in which sporting events take on larger dimensions than winning and losing. It is here that "The Express" suffers its biggest stumble, at war with itself over the conflicting conventions of the sports film and the biopic. Once the final whistle blows on the big game, the movie deflates. Stuck perhaps with feeling the need to see Davis' story through to the sad end, Fleder and his collaborators allow the energy and enthusiasm of the film's best moments to dissipate. If one will pardon the obvious analogy, "The Express" ends up feeling like a fumble at the goal line, coming across as simple-minded and melodramatic.
For the football sequences, Fleder switches between color and black-and-white and throws in some slow-motion sequences but generally flails about, losing the classical elegance of much of the rest of film. In a similar fashion, Fleder lacks much true control over his actors, so that Brown as Davis is too often pushed to the edges of the screen by the rampant scenery-chewing of Dennis Quaid as Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder.
Brown's softness and sensitivity often makes Davis seem too much like someone caught up in larger currents, and not enough his own person. As for Quaid, he obviously relishes the opportunity to play the tough, wise coach -- it seems a requirement for actors of a certain age, like Kurt Russell in "Miracle" -- but loses much nuance while spitting out his locker-room triumphalisms.
"The Express." MPAA rating: PG for thematic content, violence and language involving racism, and for brief sensuality. Running time: 2 hours and 9 minutes. In wide release.