If we continue to need tales of improbably successful athletics programs and life stories of professional athletes to lift us up (and surely we've had enough already), we also need the movies themselves to be distinguishable from each other. But Hollywood has a way of working its magic in reverse so that all the triumph in a story (an over-the-hill quarterback or pitcher comes back; the Podunk team wins a national championship) becomes cynically generic.
"The Express," which opens today, joins the club. This movie is especially egregious since it bundles the civil rights era, garden-variety bigotry, and the achievements of Ernie Davis, the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy. Davis never played a game in the NFL, dying of leukemia a year after signing a contract with the Cleveland Browns. His life may be sad, but it's inspiring. The drama depicting it is brutally dull: two hours of motivational talks ("I never set out to be the best Negro running back. I set out to be the best running back"), stiff performances, and game sequences.
The movie kicks off like a dutiful term paper. In a voice-over, Rob Brown, the flat but likable actor who plays Davis, tells us how many lines compose a football field and how there are "lines that run deeper through this country and that aren't part of any game." It's 1949 Pennsylvania, and young Davis (Justin Martin) is accosted on train tracks by a gang of 12 white boys. They mock his stutter and abuse him with slurs. But a flash twinkles in little Ernie's eyes, and he takes off running. God may have made him fast, the movie basically says, but racism made him faster.
Davis's estranged mother (Aunjanue Ellis) moves him to Elmira, N.Y. And starting in 1957, coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid, pouting and peacocking) will make Davis better yet. Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson) drops by, on a recruitment mission, to tell him so. Brown has just signed a deal to play for the NFL in Cleveland, and Schwartzwalder prevails upon his problematic superstar player to talk Davis into coming to play for Syracuse. The movie hints at the complexity of Brown's natural truculence and the chip racism left on his shoulder. But "The Express" ultimately settles for making him a big glass of tall, dark, and handsome, a neutered personality deployed to spout platitudes.
There is so much ripe material here for a socially or historically curious movie. Davis gets to Syracuse while racial conflict roils the South, but what was a northern campus like during the civil rights movement, besides a living Woolworth's catalog? The filmmakers are more interested in making a safely commercial football drama that doesn't deviate from the genre's shorthand imagery and plot points.
It's entirely possible Davis was a perfect national sensation, that he played great Heisman-winning football, and then he never did anything else with his days beyond play football and serve as a credit to his race. But he couldn't have been as bland as "The Express" makes him out to be. Aside from managing to get made at all, the movie doesn't do Davis's legacy any favors by giving us the store-brand version of his life.
Wesley Morris can be reached at email@example.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.