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The Express

From a Familiar Playbook

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Forgive me if I approached The Express with something less than breathless enthusiasm. The age of inspirational (and, some might argue, interchangeable) sports dramas has produced the stories of the first all-black starting five to win the NCAA basketball championship (Glory Road) and a coach who famously benched his entire squad for getting bad grades (Coach Carter), to name two. Next up: Former Syracuse running back and two-time All-American Ernie Davis, whose groundbreaking collegiate career began the season after his predecessor, Jim Brown, signed with the Cleveland Browns.

As you probably know, thanks to an aggressive promotional campaign that leaves little to the imagination, Davis became the first African American to win college football’s Heisman Trophy in 1961. Two years later he succumbed to leukemia at the age of 23, before he had the chance to play his first pro game for, coincidentally enough, the Browns.

Nicknamed the “Elmira Express,” Davis enjoyed an increasingly tight relationship with his coach at Syracuse, Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid), and it is their unexpected friendship, as much as their success on the field, that lends the movie emotional resonance. Director Gary Fleder (Kiss the Girls) includes plenty of well-choreographed football action from the team’s undefeated 1959 season, two years before Davis earned his historic trophy. But more moving than the inevitable outcome of the Big Game is the way Davis connects with his initially distant mentor.

During a time when few universities offered scholarships to black athletes, Davis (Rob Brown, of Finding Forrester) received more than 50 such offers, including one from football powerhouse Notre Dame. Schwartzwalder vowed to improve the young running back’s ground attack at Syracuse, and the coach delivered, despite his reluctance to embrace the sudden trend of African Americans at one of the game’s most important positions. In doing so, he came to consider Davis as much a friend as a star student, prompting a fundamental shift in his attitude toward race.

Fleder and Quaid handle the transition with admirable subtlety; Schwartzwalder at first seems like a tough-talking taskmaster, but beneath his gruff posturing is a genuine tenderness. He is a decent man, and his friendship with Davis makes him more so. He is powerless to shield his players from the indignities they experience on the road, as when fans at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas shower Davis with bottles and trash. But he does his best to prepare them, and remains unwavering in his support of an integrated team at a time when the very concept was frowned on.

There is triumph and tragedy in The Express, and though Brown portrays Davis as an endearingly self-assured hero with a sharp sense of humor, Fleder wisely resists the temptation to close his story on a note of maudlin sentimentality. The director rarely deviates from the genre playbook, but just because something has been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be done again, and well. The Express is formula-driven entertainment of an uncommonly high order, competently crafted and quietly affecting. The story of Ernie Davis, which lends itself so easily to cinematic terms, deserves no less.