It's football season, which means it's also the season for at least one heartwarming and inspiring movie about the sport. This year the film comes from Universal -- The Express, a biopic of Ernie "The Elmira Express" Davis, the first African-American to win the Heisman trophy, back in 1963. However, the movie divides its time between Davis and his coach at Syracuse University, Ben Schwartzwalder, and shows the ways in which the two characters changed one another (for the better, natch).
The movie opens during the notorious Cotton Bowl game of 1960, when Davis (Rob Brown) was a running back on the Syracuse University team that played The University of Texas, which had not yet allowed black varsity team members. It's a rough game, but Davis is handling himself until all hell breaks loose ... and then we flash back to Davis's childhood in the 1940s and see how he learned to handle nasty racist situations even at an early age. He's stubborn and he's speedy, and eventually decides to use those assets to strive for his goal of playing professional football. His idol, Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown, advises Davis to play for his alma mater Syracuse because Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) is such an excellent head coach. But Davis encounters difficulties in the ways Schwartzwalder handles the black team members. The coach's primary goal is to avoid "trouble," so they're warned away from the white female students, and worse yet, at certain Southern games they're not allowed to score touchdowns. The real action culminates when the film returns to the Cotton Bowl game in Dallas.
Without giving anything away (although the idea of spoilers in a biopic always seems odd), the third act of the film is easily the weakest part of The Express. You might argue that the film could have ended satisfactorily with the Heisman award ceremony, or even with the recruiting scene that's a mirror to Davis's own recruitment. However, audiences are likely to wonder why Ernie Davis's name isn't as familiar to them as Jim Brown's, and that explanation needs to be included. It's too important for a brief epilogue, but cramming so much incident into the last 30 minutes makes the film's pacing seem rushed, and the events verge on melodrama. The final scene with Schwartzwalder feels like it was invented just so we could see the coach one more time and tie him back into the film, since he doesn't have much to do with Davis's post-college life. The film clocks in at an overlong 129 minutes, which added to my feelings of impatience during the last act.
Dennis Quaid plays Schwartzwalder in the grim, cranky way that seems to be typical of depictions of football coaches in films, but fortunately with more depth and less sentiment. The character of Ernie Davis is not a complicated one -- none of the characters in this film are -- but Rob Brown gives him a quiet charm that mixes well with his stubbornness not only to succeed at football, but to fight any racism associated with the game. Charles S. Dutton has a small but touching role as Ernie's grandfather, and Omar Benson Miller plays Ernie's teammate Jack Buckley in a more subtle way than as mere comic relief from a sidekick.
The Express contains some rough language for a PG-rated film that otherwise qualifies as family fare. Football coaches are like that -- they have to use at least a few four-letter words or it feels unrealistic. And some of the racist language includes terms we don't use in polite company today. There's also a bit of violence -- in some scenes, the white football players aren't afraid to whale on the black players in an ugly way after a tackle. But I think if you can communicate with your kids about these issues and the context in which the epithets are presented, they'll be able to appreciate The Express.
The Express follows the usual conventions of sports films, which can be satisfying and even comforting if you like the genre. You don't expect or want crazy plot twists or ambiguous, thought-provoking endings when you watch a movie that focuses on football success stories. You tend to want a slightly familiar but interesting story, and some thrilling and skilled big game sequences. The pleasure is often in watching the teams at their best, in pure satisfaction of feats of athletic skill -- like the pleasure you get in kung-fu movies of watching beautifully choreographed fights without help from special effects. And if the film is based on a real-life story, you get the enjoyment of seeing a printed article or story come to life on the big screen. On this level, The Express succeeds, providing us with exciting football games to watch as well as a lead character we can root for.