No sooner did I say that there weren’t many films about football while writing my Friday Night Lights review did The Express show up at my door. If you didn’t hear about this film, then don’t worry because you weren’t the only one. The film, originally debuting in theaters in October, made under $10 million domestically which barely put a dent in the films $40 million budget. It’s a shame, since the film is a relatively strong piece of work, despite falling prey to a multitude of clichés. Reviews for the film were mixed, with a nearly even split down the middle when it came to critical reception and football fans themselves didn’t seem to take too kindly to the film either. Despite a wide opening, the film simply didn’t reach an audience, which is really a shame as I was quite entertained by the film.
Witness the inspirational true story of a real American hero. Rising from the humblest of beginnings, Ernie Davis (Rob Brown) overcame impossible odds to become the first African-American to win college football’s greatest honor – the Heisman Trophy. Starring Dennis Quaid as the hard-nosed coach that helped drive him to greatness, The Express is a powerful story of triumph on and off the field that will have you cheering again and again!
From the start I was skeptical about this film as a) I don’t like Dennis Quaid and b) I don’t really like football either. You could throw a c) in there as well, since I don’t really like football movies and maybe even a d) since I feel that the racially charged films are kind of getting redundant at this point. Anyone who is a fan of South Park may remember that episode where the town was up in arms about some racist act and the children didn’t understand what was going on because they didn’t see the big deal as they didn’t pay attention to the color of peoples skin. I pretty much fit that bill exactly (and actually got into an interesting situation upon which I laughed at something that was apparently offensive, yet I had no idea that it really was…but that was a whole mess of a situation I’ll avoid getting into) and as such, I find the whole concept of racism flat out stupid.
That’s partly why I find these kinds of films so irksome to watch. The ignorance and stupidity of the people yelling racial slurs is just one of the stupidest concepts that I’ve never really been able to wrap my head around. I get it’s historically significant and I even grasp the hardships, but why, in the past three or four years, has Hollywood been flooded with these films? Can we just move past them, please? Just for a little while? On top of that, could we make a football film that isn’t either a serious drama or somehow dealing with racism in some way? I think we’re about due for another Major League style of movie and one surrounding football wouldn’t be entirely unwelcome.
But that’s not the case with this film, so I’ll just tackle what this film itself is about. I won’t deny that the film isn’t inspirational (although having just reviewed Friday Night Lights, I find it odd that both films use quotes from Larry King to describe them as great sports films. I’ve never seen his name included as a quote before on a DVD/Blu-ray box until recently…does he only watch football films?), and quite honestly I did get quite swept up with it all. From Ernie’s early struggles to his progression through college and his eventual hiring by the Cleveland Browns, I was really impressed with the entirety of the film. Ultimately his story is a sad one, but that’s also an area where the film falters; they show his achievements in full, yet we never really see much else of his life. The film simply progressives from achievement to achievement and it gets to be a bit ridiculous with the rapid sequence of scenes that follow the end of the film, as it summarizes the last few months of his life quite quickly. They also don’t really tell you where the nickname “The Express” came from; I mean obviously he was fast as hell, but they never really make mention of it in the film; if they did it was too fast for me to catch.
A little bit more about his personal life would have been a welcome addition, as all we get here is his on-the-field antics and how much football meant to him. Some words about his grandfather are included, but there’s little to nothing about his teen years; we get a brief look at him as a child and then the film picks up a rapid pace from then on. His teammates are at once bitter about his inclusion and then slowly accept him and stand up for him; sure he’s a fantastic player, but is that the only reason they’re doing that? Where’s all of this coming from?
Granted the film plays along with every sports cliché in the book, with the loss of the family and series of emotional and racially charged sequences. There’s even the angry coach who fires off obscenities (for a PG movie I’ve never heard so many curse words or racial slurs; I know it’s a period film so they can do that, but…man. Felt like I was watching Blazing Saddles for awhile and even heard a few new slurs I hadn’t heard before), but is ultimately the inspiration for the main character of the film. Yes, yes, I know this is all based and “inspired by real events” but…every film of this type has already existed in bits and pieces.
I’m not saying the story of Ernie Davis isn’t a just one and worth telling, as it really is an inspirational tale, the film just condenses it down to Hollywood stereotypes to the point where it just feels like a standard sports movie template filled with real world scenarios. I honestly enjoy the film though, as the football sequences themselves were riveting and beautifully shot. The acting was top notch and I was really impressed by the quality that Dennis Quaid put out, who, in the past, has put me off in terms of “dramatic” acting, but he really impressed me with his role as the coach here.
Overall the film fits into every stereotype and cliché in the book, but it’s still worth checking out. I really do Recommend this film as it is a great story, but if you’ve seen too many of these films like I have, then it may feel all bit too familiar. My enjoyment of it may have even been amped up a bit further if it weren’t for the unrelenting racism in the film, but, again, that’s just part of the Ernie Davis story. Or so I assume—you know how these Hollywood adaptations like to ramp up the drama at times and switch around historical tidbits (I’m looking at you, The Great Debaters).
Just in time for the winding down of the football season we have The Express arriving on home video. Quite honestly with a film that performed as poorly in the box office as it did, you’d think Universal would just shove this one onto DVD and forget about it. Ever the fantastic studio they are (and I truly mean that—some of the best Blu’s have come out of this studio), they included a healthy dose of extras as well as a full commentary by the director. Any other studio would have likely tossed this onto DVD a few months after its release to make back some of the money they lost and I’ll gladly do my part for them to make back some of the revenue lost on this one. It’s definitely not the greatest film I’ve ever seen, but it really deserved a much wider audience than it received. I mean c’mon people…Meet the Spartans made nine times as much worldwide as The Express. That is just wrong.
The set itself arrives in a standard Blu-ray Elite case with the usual advertisement for other Universal Blu-ray titles and the film also comes with the usual Universal “blade” menu system. The AVC encoded transfer for this film is what you’d expect from a modern production: clean and clear. There’s also a healthy and crisp amount of grain on the film, noticeable when the film goes for the artistic angle with over exposed images and grainy black and white segments to replicate the historical images and video that some of the shots of this film are based off of. The included DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is also fantastic, with some terrific surround usage on the field as the players run on the field and slam into one another. There’s also some nice crowd separation there as well, although the subwoofer rarely gets a workout; a few loud thuds and thumps here and there from the collisions on the field which always sound deep and rich, but nothing that’ll shake the walls.
Moving onto the extras we find the Blu-ray Exclusive 50th Anniversary of the 1959 Syracuse National Championship (16:23, SD) documentary. Now why this is one of the few extras on this set that is in standard definition and yet is exclusive to the Blu-ray, I have no idea. I’m guessing that this extra is included exclusively because they ran out of disc space on the DVD release, as there’s no other reason I can see why it’d be here exclusively. Oddly enough the Deleted Scenes (7:37, SD) with optional commentary by Director Gary Fleder are also in standard definition, which seems to be a trend for Universal (which is very strange, considering deleted scenes are often the only thing in high definition from other studios).
The remaining featurettes include Making the Express (13:57, 1080p), Making History: The Story of Ernie Davis (13:18, 1080p), Inside the Playbook: Shooting the Football Games (7:00, 1080p), and From Hollywood to Syracuse: The Legacy of Ernie Davis (5:17, 1080p). It seems a bit redundant to have two separate pieces on Davis’s life, but the man deserves it. As abbreviated and age specific as this film was about his legacy, he really did lead an amazing life. The extras wrap up with a Commentary with Director Gary Fleder, who does justice to the film with a solid track.
Overall the film is definitely flawed and cliché as hell, but I still Recommend it. It’s a beautiful looking Blu-ray and the film is worth watching at least once. Purists will likely be upset with its short comings, but if you’re like me and know next to nothing about the sport, then it’s much easier to accept.
The Express arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on January 20th..