From my point of view, the biggest issue with uplifting sports dramas is that there’s seldom anything left to write about them. They all follow the same formula, with the same outcomes and the same message. I could probably run some amalgamation of my reviews for Invincible (2006), Pride (2007), Gracie (2007) and The Final Season (2007) and no one would be the wiser. Each one has some underdog overcoming the odds in some inspirational, storybook kind of way. The sports may be different, but the end results are fixed better than in pro wrestling.
Director Gary Fleder (Runaway Jury) tries to make his newest film, The Express—and the latest in an extensive line of heartening sports flicks—stick out from the crowd by making it agonizingly dull. The story, which centers around former Syracuse running back Ernie Davis (Rob Brown, Stop-Loss), has all the ingredients for this variety of cinema. Let’s see, we have racism, humble beginnings, perseverance, an aging family member and even leukemia. The biggest problem (aside from the “been there, done that” feeling the movie constantly sweats) is that Fleder has no clue how to piece these components together.
So in addition to a generic sports movie, we get a generic sports movie that moves like molasses. Even clocking in around two hours it feels like Gone with the Wind. The movie focuses primarily on Davis’ sophomore year with the Orangemen, and his struggles with racial intolerance. This eventually leads to his political awakening, which would be fine if that were the film. Instead, it’s only two-thirds of it, topped off with an altogether too long big game against Texas. In place of a perfectly innocuous 90-minute sports movie, Fleder and screenwriter Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond) have to meander around the tragedy that makes up the end of Davis’ life.
As a result, there’s a movie and its erstwhile addendum, neither of which are handled all that well, nor are they all that fresh. There’s nothing surprising or new or even slightly inspired throughout the entire movie, but that’s likely a drawback of the genre more than anything else. Anything creative, clever or interesting might just get in the way of the film’s rousing message.
It might have helped if Rob Brown had even the slightest touch of charisma, or if Dennis Quaid wasn’t phoning his performance in, or if the movie didn’t devolve into schmaltzy melodrama. As a result, the world will never know the true potential of The Express. I figure Fleder and company should just be pleased if anyone even remembers this movie two months from now. Rated PG for thematic content, violence and language involving racism, and for brief sensuality.