His fame having been curtailed by circumstance, college football star Ernie Davis deserves his own Hollywood-sized sports movie, and he gets one in The Express. Davis was the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy, but his path to success was a difficult one, since he played during the pre-civil rights era of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Gary Fleder’s film locates most of its dramatic tension in whether or not Davis (Rob Brown), can truly trust Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder (a growly Dennis Quaid) to watch his back.
The tale of heroic triumph—inter-personal and psychic—over racism is told with the simplicity of a children’s story and some unfortunate exaggeration (most notably the relocation of of a 1959 game against West Virginia to that team's home turf, where the film insists the team was pelted by bottles and other trash...it's a whole-cloth invention used as shorthand for a racist time). Charles Leavitt's screenplay (based on Robert Gallagher's book Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express) rolls out ever dramatic cliche in its dialogue and incident, as Davis goes from a stuttering ten-year-old victim of racist coal-town bullies (narration: "People would always ask, 'What are you running from?'...I wasn't running from. I was running to") to the star running back of Elmira High School, where he's hand-picked by Schwartzwalder and wooed by Cleveland Browns-bound Syracuse star Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson).
The relationship between Schwartwalder and Davis was, by all accounts, like that of father and son (Davis' real father was out of the picture), and while this notion certainly isn't lost on The Express, the need for a dramatic arc positions Schwartzwalder early on as a reluctant "realist" admonishing Davis not to think about dating a white girl. The coach teaches, "There are some lines that people don't care to see crossed," a prelude to the fictionalized West Virginia game and the actual racist treatment the team faced while in Dallas for the Cotton Bowl. Quaid earns his paycheck with a climactic halftime speech: "Winning this one means nothing if you lose yourselves."
Fleder seems to be going for a cross of Remember the Titans and Rudy (here's Charles S. Dutton as Davis' beloved grandfather), and the formula essentially works. Those like me, who have seen and enjoyed a large number of "based on a true story" sports films, will probably concede this one is a little dull, despite the bittersweet finish that is the film's raison d'etre (Davis passes the baton to Floyd Little just before...well, did you see Brian's Song?). It's most unfortunate that the stolid but bland Brown (who played football at Amherst College) captures little of the good-humored energy Davis' teammates recall, and the film matches Brown's blandness in its inability to convert the story's basics into flavorful realism. Like a biography plucked from the shelf of a grade-school library, The Express' PG-rated family friendliness includes ample inspiration and sufficient history to get to its destination in "express" fashion.
Universal's The Express is on track on Blu-ray and DVD: despite the film's potentially troublesome, heavily stylized, sometimes quick-cut image, the hi-def picture quality is outstanding. Colors are accurate and black level deep, detail is excellent, and the source pristine, making for a rock-solid image all around. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is unassailable: it's a definitive presentation of the film's immersive sound design.
The Blu-ray includes Universal staples like the bookmarking feature My Scenes and BD Live access to share one's favorite scenes and download the latest trailers, but the exciting Blu-ray exclusive here is "50th Anniversary of the 1959 Syracuse National Championship" (16:23, SD), in which "eight prominent members of the team" tell the story of that championship season.
A nicely professional commentary by Director Gary Fleder explains how a film is made first on the page, then on the set, and then in the editing room. Fleder discusses the film's four primary parts, as he sees them, and covers the usual topics of pre-production, production, and post-production.
"Deleted Scenes" (7:37, SD) also come with optional commentary by Fleder, leading into several well-produced featurettes (all presented in HD) that pack a lot into their concise running times.
"The Making of The Express" (13:57, HD) ably delves into the film's origins, the cast, Fleder's working style, the period challenge, shooting on location in Chicago, the "four movements" of the film and their distinct photographic looks, and the football component. Participants include Fleder, Quaid, Rob Brown, Charles S. Dutton, Nicole Beharie, Darrin Dewitt Henson, production designer Nelson Coates, DP Kramer Morgenthau, football coordinator/2nd unit director Allan Graf, and Geoff Stults.
"Making History: The Story of Ernie Davis" (13:18, HD) engagingly profiles the film's raison d'etre, with Brown, Quaid, Dutton, Fleder, Jim Brown, Ernie's uncle Chuck Davis, Syracuse teammate John Brown, high school classmate Bob Hill, sportscaster and Syracuse alumnus Dick Stockton, Ben Schwartwalder's wife Reggie, Syracuse teammate Ger Schwedes, sportscaster and Syracuse alumnus Bob Costas, Syracuse All-American Floyd Little, Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell, and Syracuse teammate Jerry Sobul.
In "Inside the Playbook: Shooting the Football Games" (7:00, HD), Fleder and Graf narrate a reel of footage from the film and behind the scenes, making use of a telestrator when necessary.
"From Hollywood to Syracuse: The Legacy of Ernie Davis" (5:17, HD) promotes the grand legacy of Syracuse University (get those applications in now!). Appearing are Costas, Fleder, Brown, Quaid, Coates, Little, Omar Benson Miller, Syracuse alumni Angela Robinson and Vanessa Williams, Syracuse professors Stephen Masiclat and Peter Moller, and Syracuse students Lisa Coombs, Lauren Levine, Meghan Lisson, John Troynousky, Tinuke Oyefule, and Michael Odofin.
The DVD shares most of the special features, but the cool bonus featurette and a superior transfer make the Blu-ray the way to go.
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