What's the deal with all the fact-based TV movies Universal keeps dropping these days?
Last week, the studio hit audiences with the bland, supposedly inspirational "Flash of Genius," which looked like it escaped from the clutches of TNT. And this week, it's doing it again with "The Express," which looks like it fits snugly with the ABC Family Channel.
"Express" appears to be for all sports fans who have ever wondered what became of Ernie Davis (played here by Rob Brown), the dude who succeeded Jim Brown at Syracuse University after Brown got drafted by the Browns. "Express" is here to answer that query: He died.
Hope I didn't spoil the movie for you (even though I might be doing many of you a favor). But that's what happened: Ernie Davis died of leukemia at the way-too-young age of 23, even before he could ever play a professional football game.
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Fortunately, "Express" throws much more in before it gets to that inevitable conclusion. (At its inexplicable, two hours and nine minutes, you can say it throws in too much.) It concentrates mostly on Davis' reign as Syracuse U's prized running back -- "The Elmira Express," they called him. "Express" catches Davis in his early years, running from snarlingly racist white boys while collecting bottles along the railroad tracks, before catching the eye of ornery Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid) with his fast moves in high school.
Of course, when he heads over to Syracuse, he runs into obstacles (most specifically, the lack of sistas on campus). He also obviously runs into bigotry when he's playing ball, as opposing teams and their fans (especially in West Virginia and Texas) make it clear that he isn't welcome on their playing fields.
While "Express" doesn't skimp on showing the strife that came with being a black man trying to be somebody in 1950s America, the movie also does everything in its power to make mid-20th-century racial tension look as schmaltzy as possible. Thanks to Charles Leavitt's toothless script (adapted from Robert Gallagher's book on Davis), director Gary Fleder ("Kiss the Girls") snatches up every sports-movie and tale-of-black-perseverance cliché he can stage -- usually with obtrusive lights glowing in the background -- with this film. He doesn't so much direct as mix and match.
This isn't to say Davis' achievements are anything to be sniffed at. He was the first African-American player to receive the Heisman Trophy.
And yet the movie makes Davis' story interchangeable with many other uplifting tales in sports films that came before it. Heck, hasn't Quaid appeared in five of these?
Even the guy playing Davis seems like too much of a nondescript blank slate to fully embody this figure. (Brown has apparently been in several movies I've seen, and yet, I can't remember him in a single one.)
"The Express" may be harmless, but it's also forgettable and indistinguishable. I would say someone like Ernie Davis deserves better. But with the way Universal and other studios keep churning out mediocre biopics, it looks like this is the best he's ever gonna get.