By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
Ernie Davis was a uniquely gifted athlete whose historic achievements deserve a movie just as special.
That movie isn't Gary Fleder's The Express, a run-of-the-mill sports movie that glosses over fertile material while playing a race card that Davis didn't.
Fact-based sports movies such as Remember the Titans and Glory Road have a responsibility to broach racism that existed. Fleder and screenwriter Charles Leavitt irresponsibly thrust Davis into similar situations that his Syracuse University teammates claim never occurred.
I watched The Express with two of those former players now living in the Tampa Bay area. One attended the Syracuse premiere a few days before, where teammates griped about inaccuracies: a testy relationship between Davis (Rob Brown) and head coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid), racial tension in the locker room during the 1959 national championship season, and a game at West Virginia before rabidly bigoted fans.
Fudging facts leads to familiar drama, misrepresenting Davis in the process. That's a pity, since The Express could have been another Brian's Song as Davis died from leukemia shortly after becoming the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy.
Those events occur late and effectively in The Express, after all other sports movie cliches have been exhausted.
There's nothing wrong with the performances. Quaid has his grizzled sportsman persona down pat after The Rookie and Any Given Sunday. (The score is now 6-5 in Quaid's favor in the contest with Kevin Costner to see who can play the most jocks on screen.) Brown is an affable presence and Charles S. Dutton is sturdy as Davis' father.
The most interesting character in The Express is Davis' running back predecessor at Syracuse, Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson). Many of the racial offenses aimed at Davis in The Express were actually Brown's problems. Henson's dignified militancy is shown to rub off on Davis — which apparently wasn't true — but that dynamic is fresh, at least.
The Express is just another unreal movie about a real person, a push-button attempt to please crowds without bothering to get facts straight. Fleder and Leavitt obviously believed the truth wouldn't sell enough tickets.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs. tampabay.com.