Release Date: January 20, 2009
Film Rating: 3/5
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Rob Brown, Omar Benson Miller, Clancy Brown and Charles S. Dutton
Written by Charles Leavitt
Directed by: Gary Fleder
The Express embodies all the elements of an uplifting period sports epic. Its hero, the now-legendary Ernie Davis, struggles with adversity but succeeds through his own talent and tenacity. The period elements of production design, wardrobe, etc, all ring true, and the numerous football sequences are exciting and realistic. And yet, the sum of all those parts does not add up to a successful film. As with other films I have reviewed of late, the issue here is one of focus. The film is unsure whether it is a biography of Davis (played enthusiastically by Rob Brown), an examination of race relations up to 1962, a re-enactment of the Syracuse Orangemen’s winning 1959 season, or some combination of the above. The real-life story of Ernie Davis is an interesting and worthy one – he rose from a poor (but loving) family and surmounted a stuttering problem to demonstrate so much skill on the football field that he became the first black player to win the Heisman Trophy before health issues took his life in another direction. But this story is only told in a piecemail fashion here – we see a glimpse of his childhood, a longer look at his recruitment by football legend Jim Brown and coach Ben Schwarzwalder (a grimacing Dennis Quaid), and a travelogue of Orangemen games during Davis’ time at Syracuse. There are great moments throughout, but the film seems to just scratch the surface of its story while insisting that the audience feel an overwhelming emotional reaction to the pathos of Davis’ life. So it’s not a surefire winner of a movie – but I must acknowledge there are many good sequences – usually on the football field under the supervision of football coordinator Allen Graf. (I should also note that one of the most effective sequences in the film, where the Orangemen fight an uphill battle against a racist Virginia team, has been shown to be apocryphal – to the point that veteran Orangemen from the 1959 team have publicly apologized for the film’s depiction.) Nevertheless, fans of the Syracuse Orangemen and college football history are likely to want to grab this for their collection, as will fans of Rob Brown.
The Express was released on standard definition DVD and Blu-ray. Both versions come with feature commentary by director Gary Fleder, deleted scenes (with optional commentary) and four featurettes. The Blu-ray release contains the film in a 1080p VC-1 transfer with DTS-MA 5.1 sound, and includes an exclusive featurette covering the 50th anniversary of the 1959 National Championship. (Curiously, this Blu-ray exclusive is presented in standard definition...)
VIDEO QUALITY: 3 ½/5 ½
The Express is presented in a fine 1080p VC-1 transfer that shows off a host of detail and an array of flesh tones and color schemes. The black levels look solid, and the atmospheric details show up nicely (some scenes with rain are particularly striking). Much of the Syracuse material has been photographed with a kind of glow that plays well here, while some football sequences are punched up with a brightness and intensity that almost matches the sonic blast coming from the speakers. I should acknowledge here that I am viewing this film on a 40” Sony XBR2 LCD. I have looked for any feedback on this film to see if anyone commented on DNR or anything else, but haven’t found anything to that effect. If any viewers here are watching the film on a 60” or larger monitor and are seeing anything unfortunate, please put a comment here and I’ll check it out.
AUDIO QUALITY: 4/5
The Express is presented in a 4 mbps DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix in English, and a DTS 5.1 mix in Spanish. While the dialogue lives in the front channels, the rear channels come alive with music and atmosphere, and the subwoofer is present throughout the many football sequences. When players get hit, you’ll feel it through the subwoofer. This is quite an active mix, when the situation calls for it – and with the various games, bars and atmospheric sequences, the situation calls for it quite often.
SPECIAL FEATURES: 3 ½/5 ½
The Blu-Ray presentation of The Express comes loaded with special features, most of which are also found on the standard definition release. Of course, the featurettes here are mostly found in 1080p high definition. There is one exclusive Blu-ray featurette, which somehow is presented in standard definition. And there is a scene-specific commentary with director Gary Fleder. If you’re a fan of the film or of the Orangemen, you’ll likely enjoy this collection.
Feature Commentary with Director Gary Fleder – As on the standard definition release, Gary Fleder talks through the film, discussing his choices and the history behind the story.
Deleted Scenes (7:37 Total) (480p, Non-anamorphic) – Several deleted scenes and extensions are presented here, with an optional commentary by Fleder explaining why they were not included in the finished film. One scene provides an additional glimpse into the racism faced by the black players on their way to the Cotton Bowl, and others provide additional evidence of Davis’ illness.
Making of The Express – (13:57, 1080p) – This is a pretty comprehensive look at the making of the film, albeit in a shorter time frame. All the major cast and creative staff are interviewed, and there’s a generous amount of on-set footage. The best stuff here covers Allen Graf’s football stylings, and the reaction of one of the cast upon seeing that the on-field hits are real.
Making History: The Story of Ernie Davis (13:16, 1080p) – This featurette covers Ernie Davis’ story a bit more closely, including interviews with the real Jim Brown and several of Davis’ fellow players.
Inside the Playbook: Shooting the Football Games – (7:00, 1080p) This featurette focuses on the work of Allen Graf on the football field. Raw dailies footage of the football plays are accompanied by commentary with Allen Graf and Gary Fleder. This is the most interesting of the featurettes, as it goes the farthest in depth in discussing the football being played, and what makes it specific to this story and this period.
From Hollywood to Syracuse: The Legacy of Ernie Davis (5:17, 1080p) – This short featurette covers the participation of the town and campus of Syracuse in the making of the film. Interviews with students and teachers from the campus who made appearances in the film are sprinkled throughout. Some footage is presented of the “orange carpet” premiere the film received in the town. The most moving moment belongs to the real Floyd Little, who is understandably pleased and flattered by the film.
50th Anniversary of the 1959 Syracuse National Championship – (16:23, Full-Frame, 480p) – This is a brief discussion of the Orangmen’s winning season, including interviews with 8 surviving members of the team and archival footage of the games. As discussed here, the games were a little more complicated than they were depicted in the film, but the enthusiasm of the original players shines through. This featurette is exclusive to the Blu-ray release.
There is some BD-Live functionality on this disc, including online previews, a registration function, and a bookmarking “My Scenes” function.
The usual pop-up menu bar is present and can be accessed during the film. The menu activates automatically when you put the disc into the player. There is a thorough chapter list. The feature itself is subtitled in English, French, and Spanish.
IN THE END...
The Express is an earnest and eager football movie, presented with solid video and audio quality on the Blu-ray release. The movie doesn’t quite succeed, but several football sequences are energetic and effective. And this release comes with a host of extras that cover the material fairly well. Fans of the Syracuse Orangemen probably already have this in their collection. Fans of college football or of Rob Brown may want to rent this title before purchasing it.
March 3, 2009.