The Express

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Opens: Friday, Oct. 10 (Universal)

It's straight out of the inspirational sports-drama playbook, but "The Express," based on the tragically short life of college football hero Ernie Davis -- the first black to win the Heisman Trophy -- still manages to go the distance.

Thanks to a rock-solid performance by Dennis Quaid, nice historical touches and energetic direction by Gary Fleder, the tried-and-true formula is given a welcome shot of adrenaline that carries it across some of those more heavily trodden patches.

With its period setting, the Universal release could face some resistance from audiences, but with the right marketing it could find itself landing a piece of that big-league business reserved for such sports dramas as "Miracle," "Coach Carter" and Quaid's "The Rookie."

Based on Robert Gallagher's book, "Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express," the film works as an affecting tribute to the affable young Syracuse college star whose dreams of playing pro ball were cut short when he succumbed to leukemia at age 23 and as a stirring snapshot of the advent of the civil rights movement during the early '60s.

As Davis, Rob Brown ("Finding Forrester") is in possession of a kind face and an athletic grace that easily wins over audiences, but it's ultimately Quaid's tough and tender portrayal of Ernie's gruff but decent coach, Ben Schwartzwalder, that really tugs at the heartstrings.

In adapting the book, screenwriter Charles Leavitt ("Blood Diamond") has wisely kept the focus on the Davis-Schwartzwalder on-and-off-the-field dynamic, even though it's at the expense of shortchanging some colorful secondary characters, including Darrin Dewitt Henson's depiction of game great Jim Brown.

Director Fleder ("Kiss the Girls") maintains an agreeably peppy pace, with cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau's brisk, stirringly rendered visuals (effectively changing color cues according to era) and Mark Isham's gently rousing score taking it home.

Production: Davis Entertainment, IDEA Filmproduktion, Relativity Media. Cast: Rob Brown, Dennis Quaid, Charles S. Dutton. Director: Gary Fleder. Screenwriter: Charles Leavitt Executive producers: Derek Dauchy, Arne L. Schmidt, Ryan Kavanaugh. Producer: John Davis. Director of photography: Kramer Morgenthau. Production designer: Nelson Coates. Music: Mark Isham. Costume designer: Abigail Murray. Editors: William Steinkamp, Padraic McKinley. Rated PG, 129 minutes.

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