I knew Gary Fleder's flick about Ernie "The Express" Davis wasn't going to win the box-office weekend, but can anyone tell me how in the world it ended up finishing sixth with a seriously paltry take of $4.7 million (with those talking rat dogs on top for a second week in a row.)
Being such a solidly entertaining flick about college football, it certainly deserved a much better than fate than that. I've given up even wishing that movies can have a second-week rebound given our atrociously short attention spans, but if any movie deserves it this one certainly does.
As is the case when I'm watching movies, my mind always drifts to the ones already stored there, no matter how good the flick unfurling in front of me happens to be. In this case, Gary Fleder's "The Express" inevitably made me think of the basketball flick "Glory Road," and I can state definitively that Fleder's flick is superior to that crapfest in every way imaginable.
The main virtue of "The Express" is that it treats the huge role that race played in the story of Davis, the first black player to win the Heisman Trophy, with earnestness, but never lets that get in the way of telling a rousing tale.
Though Rob Brown gives it his all as Mr. Davis, he's playing a character so nice by design that he gets overshadowed by the many great supporting performances turned in for this one. Baltimore's own Charles S. "Roc" Dutton is perfect as Davis' grandfather "Pops," and in smaller roles Nelsan Ellis (Lafayette on the seriously satisfying "True Blood") shines as Davis' brother Will and Omar Benson Miller - who is having a banner year with this role and his work as the "chocolate giant" in Spike Lee's "Miracle at St. Anna" - makes the most of all his screen time as big Syracuse lineman Jack Buckley.
Fleder's flick is at its best when the two primary forces of race and football collide on the actual gridiron, as they do at their most combustible in Morgantown, W. Va., and Dallas, Texas, in the Cotton Bowl. And it's in this volatile cauldron that the character of Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder, played with spirit by Dennis Quaid, comes to the fore.
Fleder resists any impulse to make Schwartzwalder into anything approaching a saint, never forgetting that he was a very practical man much more interested in winning than advancing any kind of cause when he brought first Jim Brown and then Davis into the Syracuse program. How he uses these players is an insightful window into the factory nature of college football that clearly still persists and thrives today.
Which, with all that good mojo going for it, makes the final act of Fleder's flick such a horrendous disappointment. Now, just in case you're among the many, many people who haven't seen this one yet, I don't want to tell you exactly how Davis' story comes to an end, but let's just say it's easily one of the great personal tragedies in all of sport.
In the hands of Fleder, however, it's amazingly sort of swept under the rug, just brought up casually in the last 15 minutes or so and dismissed without any change in tone or approach. It's as if Fleder looked at his watch (as I would have been if I ever wore a watch, with the Georgia-Tennessee kickoff quickly approaching) and just said to himself "OK, this has already gone for about two hours, so let's just wrap it up." Which is in itself a minor tragedy.
That said, for the first nearly two hours Fleder's flick delivers a solidly entertaining tale, which is a sight more than you can say about a lot of the other movies out there this year. And, not having seen the latter, I still have to be fairly certain that it has to be better than that talking rat dog flick, so just see it already.