Three and a half stars (PG)
I’ve been mulling over The Express periodically since I caught it at a sneak preview last week. The problem is that I enjoyed the film enough to recommend it, despite the fact that it’s pretty much a standard-issue inspirational sports movie, and now I have to explain why.
Over the last 12 years, I’ve seen more inspirational sports movies than I can count. The genre is one of the most popular because it’s so damn sturdy. Whether it’s an underdog player or team, a coach or an athlete seeking redemption, or a player with enormous promise who gets sick, the screenplay (usually based on a true story) almost writes itself. You let the audience get to know the main character(s), identify their dream/goal and watch them struggle with the naysayers/tough coach/cruel fellow player(s)/narrow-minded townies/physical limitation(s)/system/corrupt figures in the system. Over time, due to their perseverance/spirit/fire inside/moxie, they win over the non-believers. At some point there is the bonding moment between the player(s)/coach and whoever hassled them the most, leading to the Big Game or the Triumphant Moment, where they either realize their dream/accomplish their goal or fail in such a noble fashion that it shows how amazing they are. Prior to the closing credits, we watch a series of paragraphs explaining what happened to the key people, unless it’s a movie with a player/coach with enormous promise who gets sick, in which case they either have an amazing recovery against all odds or make some noble statements and die.
Oh, and there’s a romance thrown in there somewhere.
The inspirational sports movie formula can pay off spectacularly (Hoosiers) or pretty good (Rudy), but even the lamest ones can usually grab the audience enough to make the eyes water and the pulse pound for a little while. The Express is no Hoosiers or Rudy, but it’s far from lame. The based-on-fact story, set in the late ’50s/early ’60s, focuses on Ernie Davis, the first black player to win college football’s coveted Heisman Trophy. By the way, if you’re not a football fan, don’t worry — inspirational sports movies are far more about the people than the sport.
Rob Brown (Finding Forrester) plays Davis as a grown-up and does a good job conveying the character’s cheerful, but fiercely determined approach to sports/life. His struggle is mostly against overwhelming and overt racism and the manner in which he deals with it is part of why the film works. He also must deal with coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid), a cranky son of a bitch who, having just dealt with football great Jim Brown (Darrin DeWitt Henson), isn’t crazy about having another black hotshot with which to contend. Quaid’s excellent minimalist portrayal of Schwartzwalder is another prime reason why the movie pays off. Charles S. Dutton adds support as Pops, Davis’ loving father figure.
The beautifully photographed and edited movie is anything but subtle and gives short-shrift to the obligatory romance, but I didn’t care. The clichés were presented effectively and often with flair, and the over-the-top action scenes were consistently gripping. Between Brown, Quaid (especially Quaid) and an able cast (including Clancy Brown, one of my favorite character actors), I believed, I teared up more than once and clapped a few times as well. The Express doesn’t transcend its genre, but it works well within it.