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Blu-ray Review: The Express

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Inspirational sports stories have been produced since the advent of film. So many sports films follow a cookie cutter plot of failure to redemption, there are too many to mention. On occasion though, a story comes along that transcends sports and becomes a tale about the strength of the human spirit. The Express, based on the book The Elmira Express: the Story of Ernie Davis by Robert C. Gallagher is a story about courage, belief, and civil rights.

Ernie Davis was the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy in 1961. He was the number one pick of the 1962 NFL draft. Immediately traded by the Washington Redskins (whose owner vowed to never draft a black player) to the Cleveland Browns, Davis never played a down in pro football after he was diagnosed with leukemia in 1962. He died on May 18, 1963 at the age of 23.

More than fifty colleges and universities offered Ernie Davis a scholarship to play football for them. Following a talk with his hero, Jim Brown (Darrin DeWitt Henson), Davis decided to attend Syracuse University as his hero had done. When he arrived at Syracuse in the late fifties, he found an uneasy racial climate. He was advised to not even look at a white girl.

His coach, Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid), starts off intolerant but in awe of the young man's talent. While Schwartzwalder was intolerant, he couldn't be considered racist for the time. He promised Davis he would push him to make the most of his talent, and he did. The problem was the coach had no knowledge of what life was really like for African Americans. Gradually developing a friendship with Davis was part of Schwartzwalder's growth process.

Primarily set during Syracuse's undefeated run to its maiden National Championship in 1959, The Express focuses on some of Davis' greatest moments on the gridiron and his toughest moments off: his MVP performance at the 1959 Cotton Bowl in Dallas. He and two other players were warned to stay in the middle of the rest of their teammates for their own protection. Davis was told he could come to the banquet to receive his MVP trophy, but he could not stay for the rest of the banquet because it was being held at a segregated venue. Most of the team opted to join Davis for their own celebration.

With black athletes playing predominate roles in most of the major sports (football, baseball, basketball and others), it's difficult for many of us to remember a time when that was considered blasphemous (particularly in the South), but The Express provides a vivid reminder of racist fans in Texas and Virginia shouting racial epithets and throwing cans at Davis and the other African American members of the team. Frankly, it took some of Davis' Syracuse teammates some time to adjust to playing with African-American teammates; not all the anger came from outside sources.

Yes, the athletic hero who achieves his dream, but we know he will die: it’s a bit of a movie cliché. What movie fan hasn't seen Pride of the Yankees (1942) or Brian's Song (1971)? We know the ending, but it's the route we take to get there that intrigues, interests, and ultimately inspires us. If you're a sports fan and/or interested in African American history, The Express is a good lesson in courage, friendship, and the power of sports to bring people together.

Presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio, The Express looks great on Blu-ray. Flesh-tones look very natural and the lighting makes each scene look like films of the late fifties-early sixties when the events took place. The colors are vibrant and the black levels are consistent. There are no noticeable digital artifacts and the image is clear throughout.

The audio is presented in a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix and resonates well in a surround system. The numerous scenes of live action football are captured brilliantly, with each tackle and each running step easily discernible. Spanish and French subtitles are available.

The Express includes some notable special features:

“Feature Commentary” by director Gary Fleder. This is pretty standard stuff. He compliments his actors a lot and discusses what it was like shooting various scenes.

“Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary.” Director Gary Fleder discusses how cutting the select group of scenes helped avoid sport movie clichés. He touches on wanting to avoid clichés during his feature commentary, and listening to Felder's thoughts over the scenes he deleted shows just how successful he was at his mission.

“Making of The Express.” A standard making-of featurette that has interviews with Gary Fleder, 2nd Unit Director Alan Graf, Production Designer Nelson Coates, Cinematographer Kramer Morganthau and cast members Dennis Quaid, Rob Brown and Charles Dutton.

“Making History: The Story of Ernie Davis.” Jim Brown, Ernie Davis' teammates and members of the cast discuss Ernie Davis, his life, and his impact on the civil rights movement.

“Inside the Playbook: Shooting the Football Games.” Gary Fleder and 2nd Unit Director, David Graf, break down three plays from the film at a bunch of different angles as they shot them. They then show the progression from the start to finished film.

“From Hollywood to Syracuse: The Legacy of Ernie Davis.” Jim Brown and friends are back to evaluate Davis' legacy.

Features Exclusive to Blu-ray:
“50th Anniversary of the 1959 Syracuse National Championship.” View rare footage and listen to interviews with members of the 1959 Syracuse football team.

Accessible with BD-Live enabled players:
“My Scenes Sharing.” Bookmark your favorite scenes and share them with friends.

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About Rebecca Wright