The story of Syracuse University running back Ernie Davis is compelling and tragic. A phenomenal three-sport athlete in high school and the star player on Syracuse's 1959 national championship football team, Davis was the first African American to win the Heisman trophy.
As the Cleveland Browns' number one pick in the 1961 NFL draft, he was slated to play alongside Jim Brown, arguably the greatest running back in the history of the game. But those plans were dashed when Davis was diagnosed with a rare, deadly form of leukemia shortly after he signed with the Browns. He died at age 23 without having played a down in the pros.
Gary Fleder's film The Express is an unspeakably twee and sanitized Ernie Davis biopic that transforms this tale of an athlete dying young into a work of groan-inducing campiness. Which is too bad, because well-made sports movies can be fun, even when they are padded with clichés. I mean, I enjoy watching a ragtag bunch of misfits join together to vanquish their hated rivals. I relish the perpetual crustiness of onscreen football coaches blessed with the motivational and rhetorical genius of classical orators. I shiver in anticipation when I see the slow-motion shot of the Hail Mary pass cutting through the rainy/sleety/snowy night and heading straight for a lone, single-covered waterboy-turned-wideout named Squirt or Pee-Wee or Jock Strap who's jogging down the sidelines in oversized shoulder pads borrowed from the injured star receiver. Films like Varsity Blues and Invincible deploy such conventions with skill and wit. But there are limits.
In a film awash in silliness and obviousness — does anyone not know who Jackie Robinson is by now? — The Express' simplistic characterizations shoulder much of the blame. As Jim Brown, Darrin Dewitt Henson's narrow emotional range suggests a person who was part Walter Payton and part Sidney Poitier. But Rob Brown's Ernie Davis is even more sanctimonious; he's like a cross between Barry Sanders and Gandhi. Dennis Quaid's coach channels Kurt Russell's Snake Plisskin while subsisting on hoary generalities about honor, victory, and beating the best to be the best.
For football fans, the film's in-game action is muddled and disappointing. Fleder mixes shaky hand-held shots, slow motion, and mock archival footage in a mad scramble for excitement, but he never captures the jerky, unpredictable movements of a real game. And few football contests at any level of competition have ever looked like The Express' orgies of blindside hits and dramatic leaping runs over diving defenders. Has any movie come close to catching the look or feel of a football game since 1974's The Longest Yard?
Fortunately, the crowd I saw the movie with was aware of the absurdity and the earnestness of such hogwash, and once we all agreed that the film couldn't be taken seriously, we wrung as many cheap laughs from it as we could bear.