Crowdpleasing and oh-so-predictable, “The Express” is a muscular movie with social conscience that portrays Ernie Davis — the first African-American collegian to win college football’s coveted Heisman Trophy — as the heir to Martin Luther King and Jackie Robinson. Rob Brown’s performance in the title role is solid and static, but Dennis Quaid’s portrayal of coach Ben Schwartzwalder provides a convincing metaphor for a nation going through a crisis of conscience. The sports theme may define the pic’s aud, but emotional content could provide a crossover punch.
Of course, it’s not as if helmer Gary Fleder has a tough argument to make. That blacks were an oddity either in professional or college football as recently as the late 1950s seems as anachronistic as black-and-white TV. And anyone expecting Fleder (“Kiss the Girls,” “Runaway Jury”) to walk the sidelines of righteous indignation in telling Davis’ story would probably expect an onside kick by a team up by 30.
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Fleder’s most electrifying sequences portray Schwartzwalder’s unbeaten 1959 Syracuse U. team playing West Virginia and Texas — not exactly two bastions of tolerance — with a level of racist vitriol pouring out of the stands that is a topical reminder of America’s racial heart of darkness.
“Keep your helmets on at all times,” Schwartzwalder warns his players during the West Virginia game. Whether it’s to conceal skin color or protect from flying bottles isn’t clear.
Terrific editing by William Steinkamp and Padraic McKinley intermarries the onfield action, flashbacks to Davis’ Southern boyhood, a smattering of period footage and a great deal of stylized visualization to a degree that distracts from the very basic sports-movie arc of the story: Even as a shy boy who stutters (played by Justin Martin), Davis is a prodigy. Elevated to the Varsity by Schwartzwalder during his freshman year, Davis thrives under the grueling regime enforced by his coach.
“I bet about now you’re wondering what happened to that nice gentleman who came to your house and asked you to play for Syracuse,” says a sweaty Jack Buckley (the terrific, funny Omar Benson Miller). Davis’ agonies will not all be on the field, of course, but his talent triumphs even over the most racist of his teammates — such as the belligerent Bob Lundy (Geoff Stults).
Fortunately, there’s also a great deal of humor in the Charles Leavitt script, much of it playing off the presumptions and biases of the time. The great Jim Brown has just graduated, having been Schwartzwalder’s greatest star, and a thorn in his side. Is it a new trend, Schwartzwalder asks an assistant, or just his bad luck that the best prospect on his list is a black kid. “It’s a new trend,” the assistant quips, signifying a changed era in sports, and one Schwartzwalder had better get used to.
He does. The development of the coach’s character makes “The Express” a romance of sorts. Raised by his grandfather (the always brilliant Charles S. Dutton), Davis is vulnerable to exploitation by a father-like figure, but the relationship he develops with Schwartzwalder is far more complex, nurtured by a common love of the game, distanced by the politics of their time. “The Express” may have football as its locomotive, but there’s a long train of national sorrow, hope and promise coming up behind.
Production values are major league.