Formula runs riot in this pigskin version of “Glory Road.” It’s the inspirational biography of Ernie Davis, a.k.a. “The Express,” the Syracuse University running back who led his team to a national championship in 1959/60 and became the first African-American to win the coveted Heisman Trophy, only to fall victim to leukemia before he could even take the field in the pros. This is clearly an uplifting—and poignant—tale, but it’s told by scripter Charles Leavitt and director Gary Fleder in very broad strokes that make their point as obviously as any TV movie would.
Still, it’s difficult not to be moved by the piece, which Fleder stages skillfully if all too manipulatively, and is fitted out with an effective cast. Rob Brown, who was fine as the high schooler mentored by Sean Connery in Gus Van Sant’s “Finding Forrester” (2000), graduates to college here as Davis, and carries himself with a natural dignity suited to the near-saintlike quality the script bestows on the character. Actually it’s as a youngster that the picture introduces him (played well as an adolescent by Justin Martin), living with his supportive granddad (avuncular Charles S. Dutton), who helps him conquer his stutter. It’s during these years that he also finds an idol in Jackie Robinson and shows his ability as a fast runner when he’s threatened by some white boys and outpaces them all.
After moving to Elmira with his mother, he excels at football and winds up a high school star who catches the eye of Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid), the Syracuse coach who’s losing his star player, Jim Brown (solid Darrin DeWitt Henson), to graduation and the Cleveland Browns. Schwartzwalder, the first syllable of whose name doesn’t evince any special affinity toward blacks, travels to recruit Davis with Brown in tow, and the boy winds up at Syracuse, where he finds lots of racial discrimination during the age of segregation from the likes of teammate Bob Lundy (strutting Geoff Stults) but happily also wins a pal in jovial Jack Buckley (boisterous Omar Benson Miller) and, in time, a supportive girlfriend (pretty Nicole Beharie).
More nuanced is his relationship with Schwartzwalder, who wants to play by the existing social rules at hotbeds of racial animosity like West Virginia but whom the boy pushes toward a more progressive attitude as a result of his own introduction to the work of Martin Luther King and the NAACP. The culmination of their developing understanding is the Cotton Bowl game in Dallas in 1960, when the unbeaten Orangemen, ranked number one in the nation, face off amidst an unruly crowd and hostile referees, against the Texas Longhorns, a rough and racist team ranked second. Naturally Davis triumphs against all the odds and Schwartzwalder has his epiphany, and soon the Heisman follows and Ernie’s drafted by Cleveland, where he’ll play beside his idol and mentor Brown. But illness intervenes, leading to the sad but uplifting finale.
Fleder’s work here is solid if highly calculating: he’s especially good in the game scenes (where he’s aided by editors William Steinkamp and Padraic McKinley and a pumped-up score by Mark Isham), though the treatment can’t escape the usual conventions, like the prattling broadcast announcer to whom we cut periodically for explanation of the import of what we’re seeing and the obligatory crowd-reaction inserts (including, in the case of the Texas game, shots of Davis’ family watching back home on television). And Quaid milks his part for all it’s worth, which includes a good deal of humor at his character’s expense that he handles with practiced skill, if no great subtlety.
Nonetheless “The Express” is really nothing more than a crowd-pleasing retelling of the sort of winning-against-the-odds sports story that we’ve seen so many times before. If there’s a saving grace in this instance, as in the hoops-oriented “Glory Road,” it’s the sixties background, with its emphasis on the bigotry of the time and the civil rights struggle. But like the earlier picture, this one—particularly with its badly-judged references to JFK, which, when taken in conjunction with the (correct) depiction of Dallas as a racist center, ratchet up the emotional pull—is too episodic and heavy-handedly sanctimonious to merit more than mild cheer.