If you look at Rob Brown's face and see a diamond in the rough, a kid whose enormous potential can only be realized with the help of a kind but demanding father figure, then you might be a casting director. Ever since Sean Connery told him he was the man now, dog, in Finding Forrester, Brown has been shuffled from one cinematic mentor to another, learning about basketball from Samuel L. Jackson in Coach Carter and about dancing from Antonio Banderas in Take The Lead. And now Ernie Davis, who in 1961 became the first black man to win the Heisman Trophy, is rendered as yet another bland Brown protagonist, who learns about football from a stern, graying Dennis Quaid.
Handsomely shot with a likable cast, a thumping Motown soundtrack, and era-appropriate wardrobe, The Express looks and feels exactly like every other civil rights-era sports flick, no better or worse, and that's the problem. As in many biopics, characters don't speak dialogue so much as they drip pure, unfiltered exposition. Everyone introduces themselves to Davis with their first name, last name, and nickname, and if the date, time, and location aren't flashed on the screen at the beginning of a scene, someone finds a way to work it into the conversation.
And yet, even as Express fills dozens of brief scenes with factual details about Davis' rise from an Elmira, N.Y., high school to becoming Syracuse University's star running back, so much is glossed over. Davis' actual nickname, "The Elmira Express," is barely uttered in passing, and his freshman year at Syracuse is detailed so exhaustively that the movie skips right past the season for which he actually won the Heisman. The racism he encountered at away games in the South is shown with brutal, unflinching realism, but director Gary Fleder can't decide whether Davis raged at the injustice or simply shrugged it off. And the way Davis' future wife, Sarah (Nicole Behaire), is depicted, as the first black girl he sees on campus after the coach warns him not to date white girls, can hardly be called romantic, but that's how The Express sells it.
The Express hits all the beats of a sports biopic with such regularity that, with a few minor adjustments, it could be a Walk Hard-style parody. Davis can hardly be faulted for having lived a life that lends itself to such a traditional arc, but the filmmakers should be blamed for reducing a true and remarkable story to a series of clichés. Well intended as they undoubtedly are, movies like The Express may do a disservice to their subjects, memorializing exceptional lives with unexceptional movies.