The Express, Gary Fleder's biopic of Syracuse running back Ernie Davis, hits all the conventional plot points of the traditional inspirational football story. Davis (Rob Brown) establishes himself as a high-school phenom, triggering the interest of numerous big-time college programs. When Coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) arrives for a recruiting visit -- bringing along recently graduated superstar Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson) to help seal the deal -- Davis agrees to play for the Orangemen. Once at the school, he bonds quickly with one of his two African-American teammates, offensive lineman Jack Buckley (a winning Omar Benson Miller), but must contend with racism from teammates, opponents, officials, and society.
Davis faced these severe obstacles with the stoicism of his hero Jackie Robinson, and the young actor Rob Brown does a fine job of playing a resolutely self-assured guy. The script makes Davis a nearly flawless hero, but Brown is so loaded with personal charm that his performance keeps the character from growing dull. Davis works hard, and Brown communicates the joy Davis takes in practicing -- something that makes both the character and the actor nearly impossible to dislike. As the coach, Quaid does fine work, but the script lets him down; his tough love and his inspirational speeches are so familiar from countless other sports films that he never quite transcends the banality.
That refusal to shed genre conventions keeps undercutting the good things about The Express -- for a film about a young man who broke new ground, the screenplay tells the story in the safest way imaginable. Director Gary Fleder attempts to escape from this traditionalism, but ends up overdirecting the material; there is so much slow-motion in the movie that it bloats the film's running time to two full hours, and the decision to shoot some of the game sequences in a grainy, washed-out film stock meant to feel like archival footage simply grows tiresome. It seemed the filmmakers were trying to create a Brian's Song for a new generation. The film has an unabashed, but still very manly, sentimentality; it's the kind of movie a guy's guy might actually allow himself to tear up while watching. Davis led an unquestionably inspirational life, but The Express, however heartfelt, is uninspired.