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The Express (2008)

Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Blu-ray Disc Released: 1/20/2009

All Ratings out of

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 1/20/2009

Is it simply synergy, art imitating life, or very creative marketing? Today, the first African-American President of the United States was inaugurated into office. This was an historic days for civil rights in America. Universal Studios Home Entertainment has also chosen today to release The Express, a film which tells the story of the first African-American Heisman Trophy winner. This was a very important moment in the history of sports, but, as we learn from the film, it also had an effect on America as well.

The Express tells the true story of Ernie Davis (Rob Brown), a college football player who faced racism while helping Syracuse University win a National Championship. The movie opens in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, where young Ernie lives with his Grandfather (Charles S. Dutton) and his uncles (whom he thinks of as brothers). Ernie then moves to Elmira, New York with his mother (Aunjanue Ellis), and there he develops an interest in football. He becomes the star of his high-school team, and he's soon being scouted by multiple colleges. Meanwhile, Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid), the football coach at Syracuse, is on the lookout for someone to take the place of his All-American halfback Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson), who has moved on to the NFL. Schwartzwalder utilizes Brown for recruiting, and together they convince Ernie to attend Syracuse. He arrives on campus to find that he's one of only three African-American players on the team, and that there's a tremendous amount of pressure for him to be "the next Jim Brown". Ernie is able to overcome this by impressing everyone with his running talent, and learning that his fellow players see themselves as a team, not individuals of different color. As Ernie receives one accolade after another, he begins to dream of a future with his girlfriend, Sarah (Nicole Beharie), but fate can't be cruel, even to the great ones.

In my recent review for Balls Out, I wrote about how clichéd sports movies have become and how they all look alike after a while. The Express certainly falls into that category, as it hits all of the stereotypical highlights. Despite that fact that Ernie Davis was a gifted athlete, he was an African-American from a poor family, and thus he was at a disadvantage. Ben Schwartzwalder is the tough-as-nails coach who can’t show any compassion because he’s too busy talking about winning. The movie features the “big game” (in this case, the 1959 Cotton Bowl), complete with lots of slow-motion photography. And of course, there’s the scene where Ernie is hurt and should quit, but he refuses to. Yes, you can take your sports movie checklist and mark the cliches one-by-one here.

But, this doesn’t stop The Express from being a very likable and moving film. For starters, Ernie is a likable and engaging character (and by all accounts, this is what he was like in real life). We want him to succeed; not just because he’s the underdog, but because he works hard and earn our respect. However, the facet of The Express which makes it work is how it approaches the material which takes place off of the football field. Again, Ernie dealt with a great deal of racism and at the games at West Virginia and the Cotton Bowl, he and his fellow African-American players felt that their lives were at risk. Ernie is first able to convince his teammates and then many sports fans, that race has nothing to do with sports. We also see how Schwartzwalder struggles with this. In his mind, he is simply a football coach, but he is forced to face what is going on around him and decide on which side he wants to stand.

As noted above, Director Gary Fleder piles on some cliches, such as the slow-motion shots, or a saddened Ernie running through the rain, but he maintains a good pace with the film and the 130 minute running time flies by. He also gets a boost from his cast. Dennis Quaid (who appeared on every talk show that there is promoting this film) is very good here as the serious and conflicted Schwartzwalder. He comes from a time when men didn’t express emotion, and Quaid maintains that hard edge. Rob Brown is a true find as Davis. His expressive face and eyes relay a great deal of emotion and we immediately take a liking to Ernie.

As The Express is a true story which has a tragic ending, it should have been easy to make a movie of it, right? Well, McG proved that it’s not as easy as it looks with the cold We Are Marshall. The Express offers a very nice balance of character drama, sports action, and a historical perspective on what was a dark time in America. In this sense, the movie is emotional, entertaining, and educational. It sill reeks of every hackneyed sports movie idea that there is, but you shouldn’t let The Express pass you by.

The Express breaks for the end zone on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Universal Studios Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains a VC-1 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 32 Mbps. The image is very sharp and clear, showing no overt grain and no defects from the source material. The colors look very good, most notably greens and the Syracuse orange. The picture shows a high level of detail and there is a nice depth to the image, which really looks great during the football games. I noted no artifacting or video noise, and the picture was never too dark. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 4.0 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. This track offers fantastic audio and nowhere is it more evident than in the football games. The stereo effects are solid, as we hear the players moving from side-to-side. They then move behind us in the surround channels, where they are mixed with the crowd’s cheers. The hits provide substance for the subwoofers, as do the cannons which are fired with every score. The in-film music sounds very good as well.

The Express Blu-ray Disc contains several bonus features. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Director Gary Fleder, who speaks at length throughout the film. He gives us a great deal of information about the film's production, specifically things like locations and the work to make a period piece. He also describes making the football scenes and compliments his actors. The Disc contains 3 DELETED SCENES which run about 8 minutes and can be viewed with optional commentary by Fleder. All three are merely extended versions of scenes which are in the finished film. However, the gas station scene is worth seeing. "50th Anniversary of the 1959 Syracuse National Championship" (16 minutes) is a mini-documentary which features archive footage and photos of the team, and interviews with players from that team. Oddly, they don't mention Banks very much. "Making of The Express" (14 minutes) contains comments from Fleder and the cast, who discuss the story and their approach to the material. The challenges of shooting a period piece are also explored, as well as the football training. "Making History: The Story of Ernie Davis" (13 minutes) is a retrospective which contains comments from Davis' family, teammates, and sports historians like Bob Costas. Unfortunately, there are more clips from the movie than photos or footage of Davis. (But we can see from here that Rob Brown bears an uncanny resemblance to Davis.) "Inside the Playbook: Shooting the Football Games" (7 minutes) contains on-set footage of the games being shot while we listen to commentary by Fleder and Allan Graff who describe how the shots were staged. "From Hollywood to Syracuse: The Legacy of Ernie Davis" (5 minutes) is a brief featurette which shows the production on-campus at Syracuse, and contains comments from people who appeared as extras.

Review Copyright 2009 by Mike Long