The underdog story is no stranger to the world of sports films, with the template now becoming a staple of the genre. An underdog is someone we can all cheer for. A character who goes through hardships, yet in the end perseveres. It’s a story trope that is engrained in the American film DNA, whether it be small time moisture farmer Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, or the down on his luck everyman fighter Rocky Balboa in Rocky. The story of the underdog has no shortage of representation in cinema. For a film like American Underdog, the story of the rise of Kurt Warner, a small town Iowa grocery stocker to NFL Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, sometimes sticking to the formula is what’s best.
Going into a film like American Underdog, audiences can know what to expect. The rise of a dreamer, who sets out on a goal in our first act and by the power of love, family, friends, or faith (in the case of American Underdog, all of the above) our hero triumphs against all odds. This is not to say that this familiar story is a bad thing, what these rags to riches sports dramas all rely on is how well they tell the familiar story, and how much the actors convince us as the audience to believe in the story.
“I called every team in the NFL. No one is interested.”
Kurt Warner, played by an always charming Zachary Levi, is the on again/off again starting quarterback for the University of Northern Iowa. Warner dreams big of one day making it all the way to the big leagues, The National Football League. What is quite interesting about American Underdog, this dream is not the focal point of the story. In terms of grand sports film story telling it’s always about ”the big game”, ”the championship fight”, or ”defeating the arrogant adversaries”. The biggest way America Underdog stands apart from these tropes is that the film is more about finding love, and the power of positivity that familial love brings. Anna Paquin, the true MVP of the film, portrays Kurt’s girlfriend and future wife Brenda Meoni.
Brenda, a divorced mother of two children, her son Zack (Hayden Zaller) suffers an accident as an infant leaving him blind. The true heart and emotional core of American Underdog relies on the relationships between Kurt and both Brenda and Zack. In a film, more importantly the genre of faith-based sports dramas, where the storytelling and writing can be cliché, what works in this film is the performances breathing life into a known story. Levi brings his Shazam wit and charm, albeit on a subdued level, and shines alongside Zaller as the two show great chemistry amongst each other.
Paquin and Levi embrace the quirky charm of the early meet cute scenes between the two, and have an emotion core that breathes life into the story. In terms of the story of American Underdog, audiences are programmed to expect the expected in this formula of film. The real triumph of the film is not Warner making it to the NFL, or winning a Super Bowl, rather it’s a story of a wayward man finding his way in the world through his wife and kids. When it comes to the ”sports movie” portion of the film, directors Andrew and Jon Erwin tap into a strong visual style, one that keeps non-sports fans engaged, while also intercutting with actual footage to thirst the appetite for sports fans looking for a non-fiction biopic.
“If this is your dream, don’t give up on it.”
With a 112 minute runtime the Erwin brothers tighten a multi-decade long journey of the life and career of Warner into a easily digestible pace. Starting with Warner’s collegiate career, to stocking shelves at a Hy-Vee (which will get some audible ‘oohs’ from the Midwest fanbase), to his indoor and professional football career, the Erwin’s keep a steady pace, always allowing for the film to breath during these moments of time.
Fans of sports dramas and faith based films are sure to get everything they have come to expect from those respected genres. Those on the fences on those genres will still find moments of bliss in American Underdog, with both the faith based and sports elements never overtaking an ultimately relatable human story. Audiences of all types are sure to find enjoyment in this classic rags to riches story, filled with an all star cast, including the yet to be mentioned Dennis Quaid who takes on a smaller role as St. Louis Rams head coach Dick Vermeil.
American Underdog isn’t a game changer, but understands the assignment of telling the Kurt Warner story and executes what it sets out to do. The Erwin Brothers craft a relatable human story that is brought to life but standout performances by Zachary Levi and Anna Paquin. American Underdog doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but sometimes nothing is wrong with being another rung in the wheel. Audiences of all types are sure to find enjoyment in the feel good sports film of the year.
Overall Score 3/5
The Shameless Plugs
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