In 1961, Syracuse running back Ernie Davis became the first African-American college football player to win the coveted Heisman Trophy. Playing during this turbulent time of racial unrest, Davis had to endure more than his fair share of prejudice and threats, enduring it all to become an example of perseverance and faith.
It isn't Davis' fault that his life has become a Hollywood sports film cliché and that shouldn't keep audiences away from Gary Fleder's fine account of his life, The Express. All of the familiar tropes are here, but what makes this film worthwhile is the way it looks at this transitional phase in our society through its focus on Coach Ben Schwartzwalder. As realized by Dennis Quaid, this character is a metaphor for the country, struggling to come to terms with the changing times and rejecting his prejudicial behavior by coming to respect and care for Davis.
As Davis, Rob Brown does a fine job but is given little to do. The player comes off as being a bit bland (echoes of Ronald Reagan as the Gipper) but that isn't the fault of the actor as much as that of screenwriter Charles Leavitt. Quaid though, takes the bull by the horns, and while he's in danger at times of being a bit too large in the film's grandstanding scenes, his more intimate scenes are grounded in truth, which lends the movie a sense of credibility. While the scenes on the gridiron are a bit flashy, it's the moments in the locker room, on the sidelines and away from the field where the film achieves its true victory.
As oaters go, Ed Harris' Appaloosa is no western classic, nor a revisionist look at films of this sort. Rather, it's a solid entry in the genre that includes all of the elements we've come to expect from this sort of movie but is buoyed by wonderful casting, top-notch production design and quiet moments between its two leads rather than excessive gunplay.
Harris and Viggo Mortensen are Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, two guns-for-hire who make a living cleaning up lawless towns. Their latest project has the nefarious Randall Bragg (Jeremy Bragg) and his men running wild. Taking care of the likes of him is no problem for the two cowpokes but dealing with the widow Allison French (Renee Zellweger) leaves them all tied up in knots.
Harris makes sure to include the usual gunfights, double crosses and wild chases fans of the genre expect. But it's the conversations between Harris and Mortensen that are the film's highlights. Whether trying to figure out what makes women tick or picking out a pattern for curtains in a new house, these two pros infuse this relationship with the sense that they've been riding the trail for years, know and keep each other's secrets and realize that the greatest threat they face is when they expose their hearts.