The extraordinary, albeit much too short life of amazing gridiron running back Ernie Davis is captured in the inspirational sports biopic The Express. A bloody nose signaled the onset of leukemia costly to a life not as easily recalled like the inspirational Jackie Robinson.
Starring Rob Brown and Dennis Quaid, The Express puts many obstacles in the life of Davis who played for Syracuse University, the same alma mater as NFL superstar-turned actor Jim Brown.
Director Gary Fleder (Runaway Jury) and scribe Charles Leavitt make it easy to sympathize with the idealism behind labels amid the onset of the civil rights movement. As Davis hurdled magnificiently to becoming the first black to receive the Heisman Trophy, the character endowed by Brown is more of an emblem for a nation starting to realize its conscience.
Leavitt's adaptation of Robert Gallagher's "Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express" unfolds mostly as a flashback from one of Davis's fiercest games over approximately a two-decade period. A little feel of Ray comes especially when a young Ernie has a bottle in his hand. His younger life had him in a lower-class existence in Pennsylvania's coal mines while raised by his grandpa Pops (Charles S. Dutton) and his grandma. Davis's relocating to Elmira, NY led to much socio-economic change for the young man who would excel running the football like Brown and would pass the torch on to future star backs like Floyd Little.
Following the genres conventions to a tee, Fleder has his wildcard in Quaid's tough-minded, yet sensitive Ben Schwartzwalder, coach of the Syracuse Orangemen. Schwartzwalder prods a reluctant Brown into luring Davis into his vision of earning a national championship. But, it comes at much cost to both, as each saw the world a little different, yet both ultimately benefitted from their notions about victory and life.
It's made clear that Davis was a champion against intolerance, as the filmmakers contrast the look and stock (especially when it comes to game footage) to make their points as the challenges mounted. Brown is sturdy enough, yet more of a figure on offense (and defense) to defy the odds and strategies of the opposition, especially the grueling, formidable Texas Longhorns. He was more of a full-bodied character in the student-teacher drama Finding Forrester opposite a loose Sean Connery.
One gains a perspective of potential controversy from Schwartzwalder as Quaid presents an avuncular, if gruff persona when it comes to clashing with literal and figurative titans on and off the field. When it came to his social life or football, Schwartzwalder gained the insight on the respect and equality Ernie demanded, just as he demanded from his players.
This liberal-minded, historical cinema never dares to unearth some of the inherent tensions beneath some of the bigotry and hard-hitting action while destined to meet the approval of a wide audience. It reaches its peak even prior to Davis's finest hour as The Express crisply, if impersonally salutes an unflappable individual who, like the great Robinson, helped change the face of the game.