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THE EXPRESS
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Dennis Quaid, Rob Brown, Omar Benson Miller, Clancy Brown, Charles S. Dutton
Director: Gary Fleder
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: Universal
Features: See Review
Length: 130 Minutes
Release Date: January 20, 2009

“That’s what I like about the game. Because at that moment you are friends…and you are enemies…and you are brothers.”

Film ***1/2

It’s unfortunate that it took this long for the story of Ernie Davis to reach the screen. For one thing, we’ve had so many underdog sports movies come our way in the past decade, including ones involving racial themes, that it’s simply hard to interest audiences about the subject matter. And that’s a shame because The Express is without question one of the best true life football stories to ever be put to film.

Any sports aficionado will agree that Ernie Davis, aka The Elmira Express, is one of the most important figures in sports history. Thankfully, director Gary Fleder has taken that story and woven it into a passionately made film. The struggles Davis endured in an effort to be simply the greatest in the sport of football, amidst the height of racism in the late 50s/early 60s, is told in a most riveting way.

The story begins with Davis (Rob Brown) being raised in Pennsylvania by his grandfather (Charles S. Dutton). Eventually, he moves to New York where his mother gets a decent job. By his high school years, Davis has become quite a force to be reckoned with on the football field, where he is labeled the best running back in the region.

This attracts the attention of Syracuse football coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid), who arrives to recruit Davis along with the help of All-American, and Syracuse alum, Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson). Brown came close to becoming the first African-American in history to win the Heisman trophy. Brown is hopeful that by persuading Davis to go to Syracuse, it will result in such an achievement.

Brown was a hero to Ernie Davis, so he easily accepts the offer. But the struggle to overcoming adversity becomes more real than ever the minute he sets foot on the Syracuse campus. Though racism wasn’t as heated like it was in the South, it was still a very rocky road to acceptance in the North, as Davis himself certainly experienced.

Much of the story rightly focuses on the relationship between Davis and Coach Schwartzwalder, which is most complex and therefore more true to life. The coach is not racist and undoubtedly respects Davis as a unique talent, but their relationship is put to the test on the field numerous times. As a result, we get many gripping moments

The best example of this is during an away game in the South, during which the coach warns Davis not to go through with a touchdown. The fear was that a predominantly racist crowd would not stand for a touchdown being scored by a man of color, which would likely result in a race riot. It’s hard to believe how ignorant and inhuman things were back then.

Davis confronts Schwartzwalder about the matter on the bus ride home. He ended up scoring the goal and ignoring the coach’s instructions. Schwartzwalder saw it as being responsible for Davis’ safety, while he saw it as someone hiding behind the rules of the time, which to him don’t apply when on the football field. Both Quaid and Brown deliver outstanding performances and make their real-life characters thoroughly believable.

In spite of the conflicts between them, Davis and Schwartzwalder became the very best of friends, and were indeed bettered by the relationship. And Davis managed to lead Syracuse to an undefeated 1959 season and a victory at The Cotton Bowl against the University of Texas, where he also won the MVP award. It’s just upsetting to accept the fact that he couldn’t attend the award banquet because of segregation laws.

But Davis’ achievements didn’t end there. He got drafted by the Cleveland Browns, alongside his hero Jim Brown. And in 1961, Ernie Davis became the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy.

Sadly, Davis died two years later from leukemia at the young age of 23. Though he made so many extraordinary achievements in his life, there’s no telling what amazing feats he would accomplish in the pro league. Though his sickness robbed him of taking the field in Cleveland, the team retired his jersey in his honor.

Though it’s somewhat hard to fail when telling a story this powerful, the execution still counts for a lot. The Express is simply a superbly made film, and a lot of the credit must go to director Gary Fleder. Having previously helmed a number of thrillers, including the terrific Runaway Jury, Fleder has crafted not just a gripping sports movie, but quite a remarkable period film as well. His football sequences are extremely well shot and cut together, and though the idea of a montage sequence in a sports movie may sound corny, the movie concludes with a montage that delivered quite an impact in terms of how it was executed.

Despite following a familiar sports movie formula, The Express is a true crowd-pleaser of a film. The story is such an important one as far as sports history is concerned, and it has thankfully gotten the right treatment by the cast and crew. Football fan or history buff, the film is unquestionably worth your time.

Video ****

This is one incredibly shot film that simply looks outstanding in Blu-ray. Universal continues to shine terrifically in the format with another fantastic looking presentation. Many visual techniques are used throughout the film, such as periodic bits of 16 mm Black and White and stock newsreel footage. Multiple color schemes are used reflect various periods in the story, as mentioned in one of the featurettes. It’s a visually grand presentation made even more spectacular through 1080p. The football sequences are indeed the standout portion of the film in terms of color, picture brightness, and all around detail.

Audio ****

The phrase “football movie on Blu-ray” is all you need to know. However, the DTS HD 5.1 mix is strong and effective both on and off the field. The score by Mark Isham is indeed a presentation highlight, and dialogue delivery is immensely clear and centered. But when the action does hit the football field, prepare for true dynamic sound coming from all areas. And you might find yourself reacting more than once to a brutal tackle…don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Features ***1/2

At first I questioned why Universal didn’t incorporate the U-Control option for this release, since there’s a good bit of material to make use of and I hadn’t come across a title of theirs that didn’t feature it. Nevertheless, the extras on this Blu-ray disc are quite terrific. We have a commentary track with director Gary Fleder, as well as Deleted Scenes with optional commentary. There are four very well handled featurettes; “The Making of The Express”, “Making History: The Story of Ernie Davis”, “Inside the Playbook: Shooting The Football Games” and “From Hollywood To Syracuse: The Legacy Of Ernie Davis”. Lastly, we have a feature exclusive to the Blu-ray, which is a look at the 50th Anniversary Of The 1959 Syracuse National Championship, which features interviews with eight actual players from the team.

Summary:

No matter how familiar you are to the sports movie formula, The Express is a film that deserves to be seen by all. The life of Ernie Davis, who is the epitome of a true role model, is captured powerfully in this exceedingly well made and terrifically acted film! And in Blu-ray, it’s even MORE spectacular!

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