If you can get past several scenes that resemble Mean Joe Greene's classic Coke commercial, The Express provides a stirring and surprisingly contemplative version of the life of gridiron hero Ernie Davis (Rob Brown), who was known as "the Elmira Express" in his high school years in Elmira, N.Y., and became a legendary star at Syracuse University. Many inspirational sports movies provide only junk food for thought; this one contains some authentic reflections of sport in the civil rights era, as well as flesh-thwacking game footage that for once conveys what a coach means when he looks at a runner and declares him "a thoroughbred."
Director Gary Fleder and screenwriter Charles Leavitt do their best to give Davis his due within an inspirational sports-film format. The movie is unapologetically square.
It's also full of feeling. The filmmakers start their story during the epochal fight-packed Cotton Bowl game between Syracuse and the University of Texas in 1960, then flash back to Uniontown, Pa., where young Ernie and his uncle Will (who is only a few years older) are picking up deposit beer and pop bottles from railroad tracks. When some rough white kids try to commandeer their stash, Will drops his bag and hops a train, but Ernie grabs both their bags and races away rather than give in.
It reminds you of the classic routine in which Richard Pryor joked about black people knowing instinctively when and how to run. It's a tribute to the moviemakers that the scene is elating rather than cringe-worthy. It makes sense that Ernie, who stutters, finds his purest expression in sports. When Jackie Robinson breaks through as a Brooklyn Dodger, he becomes Ernie's hero because he says a lot without talking.
The whole movie is about the volatility of an era when some people talk and holler about race and old-school gentlemen like Davis' coal-mining grandpa, Pops (Charles Dutton), prefer to prove their worth and embody their beliefs in their own stoic actions.
When Davis' role model, the just-graduated Syracuse phenom Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson), accompanies Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) to Davis' home for dinner, Pops wants to know what it's like at Syracuse for black men, but he'd never ask that question using the words black men, African-Americans or Negroes - only "men like us." Pops also wants to know what makes Schwartzwalder worthy of squiring his grandson through college.
The movie faces those questions, and though some its answers are obvious, it's hard to think of another film that tackles them at all. The Express tells you what it was like for Davis and his best friend and fellow footballer Jack Buckley (Omar Benson Miller) to be sports stars at an almost all-white campus - and to be told, explicitly, not to look at white co-eds. That's because Syracuse's first black luminary, Avatus Stone, was run off campus for dating white women, driving flashy cars and partying.
Brown and Miller are terrific at portraying differing attitudes toward explicit prejudices. Brown absorbs them as body blows, then uses them as fuel for his achievement; he's got the ability to portray how a gifted man can turn negative energy positive. Miller has one of the most amiable screen presences in movies today - he is also "the Chocolate Giant" in Spike Lee's The Miracle of St. Anna - and as Buckley, who smiles a lot but can only bend so far, he depicts how a man who's the soul of affability can read and adjust to changing social situations better than anyone else.
Quaid, as Schwartzwalder, etches a brilliant portrait of a gruff, decent guy who comes to realize that his tacit acceptance of the outright bottle-pelting racism at schools like West Virginia may mark him as an enabler of all-purpose haters and racists. Quaid's Schwartzwalder is a stiff-necked, anything-for-the-game football man with a protective streak that comes off as paternalism to his black players. He thinks of his team's safety when he orders Davis not to drive into the end zone before a racist crowd in West Virginia and, instead, to let a white player have the honor of the final carry. But Davis and his friends consider him a quisling.
The prominence of the Cotton Bowl and the racist ferocity of the Texas team would provide suspense enough for the movie's real climax. But Quaid adds his own rooting interest with his ruthlessly honest performance of a man used to putting all his pride into the game. He makes you hope, in Texas, that Schwartzwalder will see the light.
After Davis signs with the Cleveland Browns, Saul Rubinek, striking a rare combination of shrewdness and virtue, delivers a sympathetic portrayal of team owner Art Modell as a man who doesn't separate his football and business interests from his human interest when illness fells Davis.
In the rest of the film, Quaid may have the most complex character and Miller the most likable, and Henson brings just the right godlike quality and a touch of amusement to Jim Brown. But Rob Brown brings off the most difficult task. As Davis, he crafts a persuasive performance of that unusual figure in movies: a genuinely good man.
(Universal Pictures) Starring Rob Brown, Dennis Quaid, Omar Benson Miller. Directed by Gary Fleder. Rated PG for violence, language involving racism and brief sensuality. Time 129 minutes.