Directed by Gary Fleder
Written by Charles Leavitt
The sports movie genre seems to lend itself extremely well to telling not only true stories, but also true stories in the form of biographies. Sports is such a central element to American culture, dating way way back, which also means that many heroes have been built through the arena of sport. Some more interesting than others, some with more incredible and fascinating back stories than others. Some are simply great at sports, while others had a difficult upbringing, or a tragic end, or another fascinating anecdote which transforms them from simply being a hero in their time to a legend of the game. A quick glance at Ernie Davis might tell you a story of a man who followed the legend Jim Brown at Syracuse, when in reality, his story is far more impressive than that.
Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) has just lost his legendary tailback Jim Brown to the Cleveland Browns, but lucky for him, he finds his replacement in the Elmira Express, Ernie Davis (Rob Brown), who is so phenomenal he manages to dress varsity his freshman year, despite being unable to play due to NCAA rules. But once he gets his crack at playing for the Syracuse Orangemen, Davis does not disappoint, becoming the first African American to win the prized Heisman Trophy for the best player in the country. But his ascent was anything but easy, as the color of his skin caused tension not only at the southern schools he played, but within his own locker room.
The story of Ernie Davis was one I admittedly was not familiar with. He is not the type of name that quickly comes up when discussing the best of either college football or the NFL, but he is an historic figure, a member of both Halls of Fame. Perhaps he should be more talked about after seeing his story. With big shoes to fill (Jim Brown), and the pressure of racism that came at him from all sides, Ernie Davis was able to rise above and make his own mark on the game, ultimately leading his team to a National Championship, something no other Syracuse team has been able to accomplish either before or since. The story of the Elmira Express is truly an incredible one.
So then why wasn’t the movie? There are plenty of factors which lead The Express to being just another run of the mill average sports movie. To start, the formula. It’s tried and true and we’ve seen it a million times before it seems. While Davis’ story is true and his own, the filmmakers rely on so many cliches and things we’ve seen before in both in the biopic and sports genres. There is nothing new here. Rob Brown is another element in this formula. His quiet, reserved performance may reflect the real Ernie Davis, but he lacks on screen charisma you might expect from a great of the game. Interestingly enough, we are treated to a late appearance from the young Chadwick Boseman as Davis’ successor, fellow Hall of Famer Floyd Little. Boseman is the type of performer who could handle and elevate this role. Brown gets lost in the crowd.
It is hard to really call this a bad movie, it isn’t, but after seeing so many others within the genre, it is clear The Express offers very little new to the genre apart from telling the story of an underappreciated legend. It plays as such a middle of the road, completely forgettable entry into the genre, which is why I struggled so much in reckoning with how I felt about it. There isn’t nearly enough to say, one way or the other. Nothing great about it, nothing abjectly poor about it either. It exists. For fans of Syracuse, or specifically Ernie Davis, I suppose it’d be worth checking out, but otherwise, it’s safe to avoid.