Written by Charles Leavitt
Directed by Gary Fleder
Running Time: 2:01
for thematic content, violence and language
involving racism, and for brief sensuality.
The Express was a fairly standard sports movie that had some really below the line performances and nothing that made it stand out.
Ernie Davis grew up in a time where he was treated differently because of the color of his skin. But his abilities on the football field brought him to Syracuse University, home of the recently graduated Jim Brown. Ernie's talents brought much acclaim to him and the school and he was destined for a tremendous career in the NFL when tragedy struck, derailing The Elmira Express.
We've seen these kinds of movies in the past... a person comes from a small town, overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles and becomes one of the greats. Ernie Davis probably doesn't get the recognition he deserves because he died at such a young age, so it was nice to see a movie that brought his amazing abilities to light. But unfortunately the movie itself was kind of weak and meandered a lot without having a real focus. We see Ernie's upbringing for a brief moment before he's suddenly in college after being courted by Jim Brown. Brown of course would go on to become one of the, if not THE, all-time greatest running back in NFL history. It's a shame the actor they got to portray him was simply awful. I haven't seen such wooden acting in years in a major motion picture (at least not one I want to remember). I mean, this is Jim Brown! Give him some sort of emotion. The actor playing Ernie Davis was only slightly better. He was mostly a happy-go-lucky kind of kid but when he went into a rage or started yelling it was almost humorous. Even Dennis Quaid, the one recognizable face in the crowd looked like he was phoning in his performance.
Generally in a sports movie or even a biopic, there is a particular moment you're heading towards. In a sports movie it's usually the big game where, win or lose, your hero has his story written. In a biopic there's usually a defining moment that you work towards, be it a number one single or overcoming addiction or even something as simple as death. But in The Express there were so many important moments the movie never decided which one it was heading towards. Was it Syracuse winning a national championship? It initially seemed that way but when they finally did win it was almost an afterthought. Was it Ernie becoming the first African-American to win the Heisman? The TV ads certainly make you think so, but that was literally thrown into the movie. We jump two years at the drop of a hat, he wins the trophy and then we're done with it. Was it Ernie's untimely death due to leukemia? That seems the most likely focus, but they barely touch on that during the movie, only showing his nose bleeding once or twice before suddenly announcing his problem. And then shortly thereafter, sadly, Ernie passed away.
While I understand that sometimes you just want to tell the story of someone who lived, there still needs to be a hook, something that the movie is moving towards but I never felt like The Express had any sort of focus. It was almost as if there was so much that the filmmakers wanted to say, they just threw everything into the mix without thinking that maybe they should make a coherent movie with a beginning, middle and end. And a specific end at that. The movie had multiple places where it felt like it was going to end, only to throw even more on the fire. While I certainly appreciate learning about this extraordinary person and his tremendous athletic gifts, I wish I had learned more about the person. All the hardships he must have gone through in his life were glossed over in favor of football. There were a million and one things that were touched upon, but nothing that went in depth. I think Ernie deserves better.
THE BOTTOM LINE
So overall, I was disappointed with The Express. With such an amazing life story to draw upon, the filmmakers wasted it by throwing everything including the kitchen sink at us instead of simply giving us a moving and uplifting story.
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