Ernie Davis made the most of his too-brief life.
Football came naturally to the Pennsylvania native, and it was on the gridiron where he cemented his identity. A gifted running back, Davis was recruited by the great Jim Brown to play for coach Ben Schwartzwalder at Syracuse University. While an Orangeman, Davis earned MVP honors at the Cotton Bowl in 1960 and the Liberty Bowl in '61. Later that year, Davis became the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy. The Washington Redskins used their first pick in the 1962 draft on Davis (though the team immediately traded him to the Cleveland Browns). But in 1963, before playing a single down in the National Football League, Davis died of leukemia at the age of 23.
It's an unenviable task, committing Davis' eventful existence to the truncated blueprint of the cinematic biopic. In deconstructing The Express for a two-hour run, director Gary Fleder
chooses to glance over Davis' formative years and focus on his collegiate career under Schwartzwalder's tutelage. He casts Dennis Quaid
as the coach and Rob Brown
in the lead, giving the young actor his most textured role since the maudlin Sean Connery vehicle Finding Forrester. Article continues below
And the moves largely pay off. Quaid hammers the same gruff note, and Brown is built like a football star, having played wide receiver at Amherst College in Massachusetts. But it's off the field where Brown shoulders the load, displaying a welcome passion and steely fortitude when faced with the hatred and bigotry Davis encountered while playing during a segregated decade.
Race plays a major part in Express. Growing up, Davis idolized Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball's color barrier but, in Davis' words, "did a lot without saying nothing" (screenwriter Charles Leavitt actually makes Davis more of a mouthpiece for desegregation and racial equality than is alluded to in Robert Gallagher's book, upon which this film is based). Davis is told repeatedly that he's playing both for Syracuse and the black community. Brown gives an emotional speech about representing the black fans who've come to see him play. On the flip side, West Virginia and Texas fans come off looking like card-carrying Klan members.
Fleder steadily builds Express toward the 1960 Cotton Bowl between Syracuse and the University of Texas, played in a hostile Dallas stadium. It feels like the film's natural conclusion, and even includes a shot of Davis victoriously riding on the shoulders of teammates. Cue the credits, right?
Not yet. Plenty of landmarks remained in Davis' short life, and Express shortchanges them a bit by cramming them into a post-Cotton Bowl coda. This includes his historic Heisman win, his NFL draft day, and his untimely death. The pacing is off, which makes Express feel longer than it actually is. Think of it this way. The Cotton Bowl is halftime of a commendable biopic that drags slightly but remains reverent to Davis' remarkable skills and undeniable legacy.