Monday, October 13, 2008

This Express wasn't worth it

Universal Pictures' The Express
This inspirational sports drama, The Express, tackles the true story of Ernie Davis (Rob Brown). The first black football player to win the coveted Heisman, Davis faced obstacles both on and off the field. Dennis Quaid costars as Syracuse Orangemen coach Ben Schwartzwalder. Even though the story of Syracuse running back—and the first African American Heisman Trophy winner—Ernie Davis has never been told on the big screen before, it’s hard to watch the new biopic The Express without feeling a certain sense of déjà vu. Just take a look at the plot elements for a second. A ’60s-era black athlete encountering prejudice in a white-dominated sport? Wasn’t that movie called Glory Road? A gruff coach whose views on life and the game are changed forever thanks to one great player? Sounds a lot like Hoosiers. A football legend-in-the-making whose career is tragically cut short by cancer? Oh man, that Brian’s Song gets me every time!
Dennis Quaid  and Rob Brown in Universal Pictures' The Express
The Ernie Davis story has all the makings of a poignant, rousing triumph over adversity, but it blows it on every count. Young Ernie is just obnoxious. He stutters sooooo badly it's just too much. We already know we're facing racism and underdog issues. Considering Davis overcoming his stutter is not even part of the movie, it's really not relevant to the first act. Then the film gets triumphant way too early. Just making it to college is such a reward, and they start winning games right away, what exactly is the journey? And what are the stakes? If it's for Ernie to overcome the legacy of Jim Brown before him, that would be interesting. It's not that though. Once he starts playing, nobody really mentions Jim Brown again. If it's for Ernie to integrate with the mostly white team, I'm so not invested in that. There's a little infighting, but only between Davis and generic other players who aren't even established as characters. Is it for Davis to set a precedent as the first African-American Heissman Trophy winner? I mean, honestly, are they going to make a biopic about Halle Berry and Denzel Washington's Oscar wins? Is it for Davis to bring tolerance to the sport in the '60s? Well, he didn't seem to do that. That may be culturally important but it's not in the movie. Maybe it's just for Davis to win games, but then so what? Even then, they sweep all their victories so what's the suspense? Perhaps the most compelling minor plot thread is Davis overcoming unfair referees. So they let the other team pound on him and they don't call his touchdown. Boo hoo, you have to make a goal line play to score your points. After all this wondering about the point of the movie, it finally told me. It's dignity. I actually needed the coach's explanation of the entire movie, because it's not evident from the film itself. I wasn’t even roused by the athletic scenes. There are lots of hits and tackles. A lot of coaches and players talk about lines, gridiron, rush, carry, bowl. It sounds like horse galloping noises in the sound mix, for fans of superreality. Then so much happens in the end of the movie that it's like a whole different movie. THAT's the movie they should have made. The one where all the stuff happens to Ernie Davis. A disappointing 2 on my "Go See" scale.

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