×

The Express

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.

With:
Ernie Davis - Rob Brown Ben Schwartzwalder - Dennis Quaid Jack Buckley - Omar Benson Miller Jim Brown - Darrin DeWitt Henson Pops - Charles S. Dutton Young Ernie - Justin Martin Bob Lundy - Geoff Stults

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.

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.

Popular on Variety

The Express

Production: A Universal release presented in association with Relativity Media of a Davis Entertainment Co. production. Produced by John Davis. Executive producers, Derek Dauchy, Arne L. Schmidt, Ryan Kavanaugh. Co-producer, Adam Copland. Directed by Gary Fleder. Screenplay, Charles Leavitt, based on "Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express" by Robert Gallagher.

Crew: Camera (Technicolor), Kramer Morgenthau; editors, William Steinkamp, Padraic McKinley; music, Mark Isham; music supervisors, Peter Afterman, Margaret Yen; production designer, Nelson Coates; art director, Seth Reed; set designers, David Tennenbaum, Randy Wilkins; set decorator, Denise Pizzini; costume designer, Abigail Murray; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), David Obermeyer; supervising sound editor/sound designer, Scott Martin Gershin; special effects coordinator, John Milinac; visual effects coordinator, Sara Docksey; visual effects, CIS Hollywood; assistant director, Michael Zimbrich; casting, Deborah Aquila, Tricia Wood, Jennifer Smith. Reviewed at Landmark Theater, Los Angeles, Sept. 23, 2008. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 129 MIN.

With: Ernie Davis - Rob Brown Ben Schwartzwalder - Dennis Quaid Jack Buckley - Omar Benson Miller Jim Brown - Darrin DeWitt Henson Pops - Charles S. Dutton Young Ernie - Justin Martin Bob Lundy - Geoff Stults

More Film

  • Leonardo Dicaprio Once Upon a Time

    Leonardo DiCaprio's Earth Alliance Commits $5 Million to Amazon Fires

    Earth Alliance, an environmental initiative backed by Leonardo DiCaprio, has committed $5 million toward the preservation of the Amazon rain forest following an alarming surge in wildfires. After launching Sunday, the organization’s emergency Amazon Forest Fund is working to support local partners and indigenous communities in their efforts to protect the sensitive habitats within the [...]

  • (from left) Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson)

    Box Office: 'Hobbs & Shaw' Scores $102 Million Debut in China, Nears $600 Million Globally

    Universal’s “Hobbs & Shaw” returned to first place on the international box office charts, thanks to a massive $102 million debut in China. The “Fast & Furious” spinoff, starring Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, collected another $120 million overseas, boosting its foreign tally to $441 million. “Hobbs & Shaw” is nearing the $600 million mark [...]

  • Angel Has Fallen

    Box Office: 'Angel Has Fallen' Rises to No. 1 With $21 Million Debut

    “Angel Has Fallen,” the third chapter in Lionsgate and Millenium’s action franchise starring Gerard Butler, had a stronger opening weekend than expected, collecting $21.25 million during its first three days of release. Those ticket sales were enough to top domestic box office charts, bumping last weekend’s champ, Universal’s comedy “Good Boys,” to second place. Starring [...]

  • Amanda

    ‘Amanda’ Takes Home Best Int’l Film at 15th Sanfic

    SANTIAGO, Chile    French director Mikhael Hers’ “Amanda” scooped up the Best Int’l Film award Saturday (Aug. 24) at the 15th Santiago Int’l Film Fest (Sanfic), which reported a 20% audience uptick in the past two years and continues to grow its reputation as the most vibrant and prominent film festival in Latin America’s Southern [...]

  • disney d23

    Cruella, Kit Harington and Black Panther's Return: Everything We Learned at D23 Day Two

    Not to be outdone by the avalanche of series orders and casting announcements bolstering the new streaming series Disney Plus, Walt Disney Studios showed off its film wares in a marathon presentation at D23 on Saturday. The Anaheim, Calif. expo brought star power, if perhaps fewer surprises than Friday’s presentation, as fans in princess and [...]

  • Harvey Weinstein, Katie Holmes, Taylor Swift'The

    Taylor Swift Downplays Association With Harvey Weinstein

    Taylor Swift’s association with disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was among the topics the singer addressed in a revealing new interview with The Guardian. Weinstein held producer credits for the movies “One Chance” and “The Giver,” both of which featured Swift — in the former, a song, and in the latter, a supporting role. She [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content