Friday, October 10, 2008
MovieWatch: "The Express"
Director: Gary Fleder
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 35
In a Nutshell: The story of Ernie "The Elmira Express" Davis is the stuff that a great underdog sports movie is made of. Perhaps, though, Ernie Davis was actually the stuff that too many great underdog sports movies are made of.
With screenwriter Charles Leavitt incapable of deciding the story he wants to tell, director Gary Fleder is unable to put the proper emotional emphasis on a single foot of celluloid. As a result, I sat in the theater constantly frustrated by all of the things I knew should be powerful or exciting that the filmmakers were botching.
Full review of "The Express" after the bump...
[This review is going to treat Ernie Davis' life as fact, meaning that certain things about his life aren't really surprises or shouldn't be. Or shouldn't need to be. What I'm saying is that there are spoilers, but they're biographical spoilers. So deal with it?]
Working from Robert Gallagher's autobiography, Leavitt had to make choices regarding how he wanted to focus on Davis' life for the purposes of a two-hour film.
Is it the story of the first black Heisman trophy winner?
Is it the 1959 Cotton Bowl between Syracuse and Texas in which the nation's racial wounds were exposed?
Is it the story of the athlete who had to follow Jim freakin' Brown at Syracuse, but rather than getting lost in the great man's shadow, found his own greatness?
Is it the story of a craggy white coach and a black running back learning to coexist?
Is it the story of a transitional moment in college football, focusing on one team's divided locker room in which players of both races learned to coexist?
Is it just a biopic about a great athlete, his upbringing, his achievements and his loves?
Is it the story of an athlete who died young?
The problem facing Leavitt would have been that in more than half of those cases, the resulting movie might be awesome, but it wouldn't be a theatrical release. It would be an ESPN Original Movie, which is in no way an insult. These days ESPN is producing many of the finest sports dramatizations going. Huzzah, ESPN!
But Leavitt obviously wanted it to be a movie. Well, no studio in this town is going to bankroll a movie about a football player nobody in the 18-49 demo is old enough to remember and starring a young African-American actor, regardless of hypothetical star power (and more specifically an actor as capable, but unproven as leading man Rob Brown). That means that the craggy coach/black player movie has to come into play because studios *will* still bankroll a sports movie starring Dennis Quaid.
But Leavitt can't commit to that relationship because, unless he missed things, the relationship between Quaid's Ben Schwartzwalder and Davis wasn't really all that compelling. Schwartzwalder was a bit of a racist, it appears, but he wanted to win, so he was willing to recruit even outspoken black athletes. As presented in the movie, Schwartzwalder learned a little bit about race, but not very much, while Davis appears not to have gained a thing from his coach, despite the ad campaign suggesting that this is one of those stories of an inspirational authority figure. Schwartzwalder has no scenes on his own, no family scenes to develop character and, as a result, Quaid gets no deeper than "gruff" and "dutifully impressed." But that's how the studio is selling the movie, because that's what the studio bought.
Structurally, the entire movie is a mess. It begins with a few shots from that 1959 title game and flashes back, but the game takes place two-thirds of the way through the movie with only general emotional payoff. We get early scenes of Darrin Dewitt Henson's James Brown complaining about the racism of Heisman voters and we see Davis staring at a collection of Heisman winners, but then the Heisman isn't mentioned again until he suddenly wins it, after a season that we didn't see for a single second. Charles S. Sudden is totally wasted as Davis' grandfather, there's some throw-away scene of Davis' political awakening and he gets a girlfriend because main characters in movies need girlfriends. But Leavitt won't tell us if Ernie Davis was actually political, he won't explore why no black man had ever won the Heisman and he never decides if the 1959 Cotton Bowl was a genuinely important moment for America and college football, or if it was just a decent and exciting contest.
So what is Gary Fleder to do? He keeps teasing these emotional moments as if they're going to have payoffs and then either skips the build-up or skips the payoff. I honestly wonder if the fault is with Fleder and Leavitt, if the editing by Padraic McKinley and William Steinkamp just never found the story, or if the studio tried taking over post-production and reshaped it into the amorphous series of cliches because that would be easier to market. Whoever blundered the story blundered the movie, because in isolation, none of the components of "The Express" are necessarily as bad as the whole.
Fleder stages the football decently and cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau distributes a number of very pretty images, mostly scenes of gridiron combat. After "Varsity Blues" and "Hardball" and "Kicking & Screaming" and "Gracie" and "Invincible" and "Miracle" Mark Isham delivers the sort of inspiration score he could and sometimes does do in his sleep.
As experienced as Isham is with the underdog sports genre, the actors are also old pros.
As is often the lot for young black actors in Hollywood -- check out the early careers of folks like Omar Epps and Derek Luke and Wesley Snipes -- Brown is making a sports transition, after doing basketball in "Finding Forrester" ("Who's the man now, dawg!") and "Coach Carter." Get him a baseball movie -- he could totally play Jackie Robinson in ESPN's biopic -- and he should be ready to join a TV medical ensemble any day. He's a good actor and he has nothing to do in "The Express" other than seem athletic. The movie has no interest in telling us what kind of PERSON Ernie Davis actually was.
Quaid has done cycling ("Breaking Away"), track ("Our Winning Season"), baseball ("The Rookie") and a trio of football movies now. He's got a pretty solid sports movie brand and he just pinches his face and bellows enthusiastically. He just isn't given the "gruff coach" opportunities that Kurt Russell got in "Miracle."
The assortment of superior supporting actors lost in the shuffle start with Dutton and include Clancy Brown, Aujanue Ellis and Omar Benson Miller. At 30, Miller probably figures he's getting too old to be a college athlete on screen, but he's every bit as plausibly 20 as fellow players Evan Jones and Geoff Stults, which is to say "not at all." Miller, Jones and Stults are all remnants of a "Remember the Titans"-style version of the movie and they all lost screentime to Quaid.
"The Express" could have been several different movies, all of which fit with well-established pieces of the underdog sports movie genre. Because it decides be maybe a little bit of each, it doesn't do any of them well.