by ED SYMKUS & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & f you're as tired as I am of "based-on-fact inspirational sports movies," it's likely that, if you need to see a brand-new movie this weekend, you'll choose Body of Lies or Quarantine or City of Ember.
And you might have a good time at those movies. (Well, I don't think a good time is in the cards for anyone going to the ugly, blood-soaked Quarantine.). But by skipping over The Express, you'll be missing a surprisingly good study of the spirit of sports overcoming the stupidity of racism.
This is the story of Ernie Davis, a young black player who was destined for stardom and achieved a pretty good level of it before being struck down by forces out of his or anyone else's control. Which is why you've probably never heard of him. But if the details told here are even close to the truth, and both bad luck and fate didn't get in the way, Davis would have been as celebrated a running back as Jim Brown.
The film doesn't mess around with what it's trying to get across about America in the '40s, '50s and '60s. The opening frames feature a narrator discussing both the lines on a football field and "other lines" across the country -- a reference to the racial divide. That segues right into a tough-as-nails football game that shows young white players hurling epithets at young black players.
If that's not clear enough, the film then flashes to a decade earlier: one of those black players -- at that time a 10-year-old boy -- and his brother being threatened by a bunch of white kids. One of the brothers takes off just in time, and runs like Forrest Gump.
Meet young Ernie Davis -- soon a high school gridiron hero, and the guy whom coaches at Syracuse University think might be the next Jim Brown (who had just left Syracuse to play for the Cleveland Browns).
The film wastes some time giving us his childhood background, which, aside from the incident with the white kids, feels like so much filler. But scenes of Davis (Rob Brown) as a running, dodging, leaping machine on the high school field, and later, at Syracuse, as a player who just can't be caught, and even if he is, can't be pulled down, tend to make you forget the slow parts.
Rob Brown, a relative newcomer, is one of the film's biggest assets, showing agility and grace on the field and displaying an enthusiasm that practically bursts off the screen. But though he's the main focus of the story, he's pushed slightly toward the sidelines in the acting department by Dennis Quaid, as Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder.
Quaid, as Schwartzwalder, is all friendly talk and banter when he's trying to woo Davis to Syracuse. But once he gets him there and the season starts, he goes through a major personality change, turning into a strict disciplinarian, pushing his team's members almost beyond endurance, letting everyone know who's boss and that they are "here to win games!"
There's also some business about Syracuse never having won a national title at that time, but that's about as close to clich & eacute; as the film gets. Blasts at racism get equal time with the football action while never feeling preachy. The filmmakers might have been going after some sort of editing record, because the cuts come fast and hard -- not only in the plentiful action scenes, but even in quiet sequences of people gathered around a dinner table. There's an excellent and inventive combination of sight and sound at a Syracuse-Kansas game, where some parts are incredibly loud and other parts are almost silent.
The story threatens to get a little convoluted on a couple of occasions, mostly during side stories about Davis trying to find a girlfriend while lacking any social skills. That's mostly played for laughs in scenes with his outgoing pal J.B. (Omar Benson Miller, currently seen in Miracle at St. Anna).
But things always get back to the problems of being black in the racist America of the times -- mostly in the South, with big-time trouble coming from white players, white fans, and even white officials. Toward the end, when it looks like Davis will head to the pro leagues, a tough break comes his way, and the drama is turned up a few notches, leading to a closer that's both downbeat and uplifting. All in all, it's the best football film since Friday Night Lights.
Directed by Gary Fleder
Starring Rob Brown, Dennis Quaid, Omar Benson Miller