October 10, 2008

The Express draws no fouls, but scores no extra points

Those of us with a fondness for Remember the Titans, Brian’s Song, or Friday Night Lights could make some reasonable predictions about Gary Fleder’s The Express. There would be a hard-nosed coach, a young student with immeasurable potential on the football field, some barriers—namely race relations—in his way, and a triumphant victory over those barriers at the conclusion.

Don’t get me wrong. These stories, while similar sounding, are each important in their own way. Each break in the color barrier for sports had its weight. The Express starts at the beginning, when Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers.

But if faithful remakes can be better than originals, there was no reason this movie could not have offered something new or brilliant to the genre. The predictable ascent of Ernie Davis’s high school performance, followed by the possibility of his being better than the greats (Jim Brown, in this case) is just too standard of an offering. A run-of-the-mill inspirational story like this needs some thing extra—stellar acting, a great score, powerful dialogue, or clever cinematography—to set itself apart. The Express fumbles in not going the extra distance.

Lead actors Rob Brown and Dennis Quaid give good (not great) performances as Ernie Davis, Jr. and coach Rob Schwartzwalder. Quaid proves to be a gruffer Syracuse University head football coach than expected, but in the big moments when he should have delivered a Denzel Washington–style one-liner, he has very little to say. He looks and acts like your typical football coach who sometimes drills his players for no reason.

There are no memorable lines and hardly any moments when you admire the coach for his character. Rob Brown also gives a no-frills performance, portraying Davis’s cool shyness around women and his aggressive stance towards his passive-aggressive head coach. His performance leaves the viewer with few complaints but equally few compliments.

As for the camera’s eye view, there are over-dramatized catches down the field, tackles in practice, and metaphorical uses of football spewed all over this two-hour epic. Swelling strings, slow-motion catches, and pounding tackles against the practice dummy come exactly when you think they will. Even for suckers for dramatic football plays, the central game of the movie, 1961’s Cotton Bowl game, will drag on much too long.

In the game, Davis is denied a touchdown and the coach replaces him with a white running back to score. Davis had injured his hamstring a day earlier, and at halftime, Schwartzwalder uses this as an excuse to leave Davis in the locker room for fear of further backlash on the way home from the game. The 20-year-old later storms out onto the field and overrides his coach’s decision by pointing out that one cannot play by the rules he claims to denounce if progress is to be made.

Davis sheds two main words of wisdom in the film. First, you cannot be just like the greats, you have to be better than them. Davis never claimed to want to be Jim Brown, though he could recite his average yards-per-carry in a heartbeat. He wanted to be the best overall, not just the best black player. The second adage is that in the end, football is just a game. The thing that matters is what you play for.

For all the attempted inspiration that falls flat through most of the movie, these last two lines at least provide closure. Compared to other movies in the genre, the central issue is different in that the bulk of racial discrimination is not between teammates but from outside teams and individuals. This places Davis’s feat in a larger, national perspective that causes President Kennedy to congratulate the young man face-to-face.

The fact that Davis led his team to victory at the Cotton Bowl and was not allowed to the awards reception at a white-only club signals that this historical period was supremely transitional. This time deserved a big-screen adaptation, but it should have been handled with more care. Consequently, The Express is simply standard fodder for occasional moviegoers who like football.