The Express is no worse than your average inspirational true-life sports film. The problem, of course, is that the average inspirational true-life sports film is worth approximately jack squat, what with its indefatigable dedication to moldy, phony conventions. As with Glory Road, Remember the Titans and countless others, Gary Fleder’s dud has a stirring story to tell, recounting the groundbreaking 1959-1961 career of Syracuse University running back Ernie Davis (a blandly charming Rob Davis), during which time he helped his school win their maiden national football championship as well as became the first African-American to ever win the Heisman Trophy. Davis is a more than worthy subject for a feature film, but tripe like this does his legacy no good, relegating his genuinely arduous, courageous life as an African-American in pre-Civil Rights America to a series of lame clichés which decimate authenticity.
Everything is literally and figuratively black and white in Express: coach Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) starts off intolerant—as with former star Jim Brown, he makes sure to caution Davis against dating white women—and winds up tolerant; a racist linebacker learns to embrace his minority teammates; white southerners are depicted as rabid hatemongers; Davis’s elderly grandpa (Charles S. Dutton) is wise and noble; his girlfriend is smart and caring; his friends are uniformly supportive; and his self-confidence in the face of prejudice is unwavering. By adhering to disingenuous formula at every turn, and then failing to even sufficiently dramatize any of its corny narrative elements—director Fleder using superficially glossy cinematography like a schoolkid uses his watch to reflect blinding light into friends’ eyes—the film proves merely a reductive fairy tale in which moving triumph is wholly undercut by the absence of credible, thorny conflict. Nowhere is that fakeness more pronounced than in its gridiron sequences, in which Davis’s runs end in either catastrophically vicious hits or TD celebrations, every other would-be tackler is a knucklehead easily hurdled with acrobatic grace, and Davis winds up at the center every game-changing play, all pitiful tropes that are as laughable as the notion that any self-respecting sports fan would accept this soft-and-cuddly slop as truth.