Football fans know the tale of Kurt Warner quite well. An afterthought coming out of college, Warner bounced around training camp before stocking shelves in a supermarket to make ends meet, until making a name for himself in the Arena League. From there, he was discovered by the NFL, with the rest being history. The greatest un-drafted player in league history, his success was ready made for Hollywood. So, it’s not surprising that American Underdog has come along to try and do it justice. What’s interesting is that the film is not quite a Disney tale, and as interested in Warner the person (and his relationships) as it is in Warner the athlete. That focus helps to at least slightly set it apart from the pack.
American Underdog takes Warner’s story and make this a hybrid between a romantic drama/dramedy and a sports movie. Football is certainly represented, but it’s not the sole focus. Nothing here re-invests the cinematic wheel, to be sure, but it’s all done with such an affectionate touch that it’s hard not to fall for it. Cynics need not apply here, but if you’re open to the flick, it’s going to reward you.
A sports biopic, this tells the story of Kurt Warner (Zachary Levi) and his improbable road to the Hall of Fame. At the beginning, he was a fringe college player, just hoping to get on the NFL’s radar. One night, out at a bar with teammate Mike Hudnutt (Ser’Darius Blain), he sees Brenda Meoni (Anna Paquin) dancing. Immediately, he’s smitten. A courtship begins, one that she wants to put the breaks on, especially considering the needs of her legally blind son Zack (Hayden Zaller). Undeterred, Kurt keeps trying, eventually winning Brenda over. Now a family unit, he’s focused completely on becoming a professional football player.
Struggling to find a Quarterback job after getting cut by the Green Bay Packers almost immediately after catching on with them following the draft, money is tight. Needing to provide for his family, he takes a job stocking shelves at a supermarket. His dream appears over, at least until an opportunity in the upstart Arena League comes calling. After initially struggling, he figures that league out, becoming a stud QB. That leads to the St. Louis Rams signing him, playing a hunch by veteran coach Dick Vermeil (Dennis Quaid). One injury later and the rest is history.
Zachary Levi and Anna Paquin help to ground this story with solid acting, especially when the plot gets a bit lazy. There’s a charm and realism to the work that elevates a fairly basic screenplay. Levi plays Kurt Warner as a hugely decent person, even when his focus is somewhere else than it should be. His performance is strong enough to immediately invest you in the character. Paquin takes what could have been a thankless role and imbues it with life. The two have very nice chemistry here, which goes a long way. Dennis Quaid warms the heart in almost an extended cameo, but it’s nice to see him in this sort of a role. Supporting players include Adam Baldwin, Ser’Darius Blain, Chance Kelly, Bruce McGill, Hayden Zaller, and more.
Director brothers Andrew Erwin and Jon Erwin have seemingly been trying to bridge the gap between faith based entertainment and mainstream movies, and with American Underdog, they’ve found it. The script, credited to the latter Erwin, as well as David Aaron Cohen and Jon Gunn, adapted Warner’s book with an eye towards both crowds. While I could have done without as much religion as there is here, it’s not ever religious propaganda or proselytizing. Plus, it’s in keeping with Warner’s beliefs. To that end, it feels honest to the man, as opposed to having an agenda. The Erwin Brothers have a bland directorial style, but they pace it well, keeping you invested in the underdog tale.
As an aside, it’s kind of a wild thing to see a Kurt Warner biopic. I’ve gotten to the age where athletes and public figures I’ve followed throughout their time in the limelight are getting films of their own. Usually, if someone feels modern, a biopic would be cheap and rushed. That’s not the case here, and it’s a sign that I’m definitely getting old.
American Underdog will certainly please Kurt Warner fans, but those of you who dig sports flicks should find it quite solid as well. It doesn’t have a cynical bone in its body, so know that going in, but it kind of comes with the territory. Managing to bridge the gap between the atrocities that are Pure Flix and the formula of the inspirational Disney sports tale, American Underdog finds a nice little sweet spot.