American Underdog is an inoffensive but utterly bland bit of hagiography, only slightly elevated by its surprising visual merit and an affable leading man.
By all accounts, former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner seems like a pretty decent guy. His marriage to wife Brenda has been completely devoid of the type of soap opera drama that tends to afflict so many celebrity couples. He has been a vocal supporter of the BLM movement and LGBTQI+ rights. He has taken his various earnings and founded a number of charitable organizations, including Treasure House, a supportive living community for young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. He is also a devout, vocal Christian, a fact that makes filmmakers Jon and Andrew Erwin — with based-on-a-true-story evangelical flicks like Woodlawn, I Can Only Imagine, and I Still Believe marking their most visible works — a perfect fit to tell his inspirational life story in American Underdog, a title as bland and wholesome as the movie itself. The particulars of Warner’s rise to fame are stirring in the way of any number of Reader’s Digest articles: A small town Iowa boy who dreamed of nothing more than playing professional football, Kurt Warner (Zachary Levi) would go on to play in the 2000 Super Bowl with the St. Louis Rams and — spoiler alert for anyone two decades late to the party — win a championship and game MVP, an achievement so miraculous that voiceover narration literally tells us the statistical odds within the movie’s opening moments.
That fairy tale moment doesn’t mean the road was ever easy for Kurt; if it was, there wouldn’t be this movie about it. Kurt graduated from the University of Iowa in 1992 and was drafted to the Green Bay Packers, where he lasted literally one day of practice. The love of a sassy divorcée and mother-of-two named Brenda (Anna Paquin) would coax Kurt to abandon the game he loved, working a job at a local grocery store to pay the bills. But his impressive athleticism and prowess on the field, as evidenced by his success in the Iowa arena football league, once again inspired the NFL to come calling, this time the St. Louis Rams, where aging head coach Dick Vermeil (Dennis Quaid) sees a little of himself in the unflappable dark horse. Somewhat surprisingly, then, American Underdog builds not toward Warner’s Super Bowl triumphs — although it is haphazardly included — but instead to his first start as an NFL quarterback, the result of a teammate’s injury. And yes, you can bet the movie cuts back and forth between the game itself and every person who has ever met or known Kurt watching it on TV, breaths all the way bated. It’s also worth noting that the film devotes equal time to both the on-the-field action and Warner’s courtship of the hesitant Brenda, a former Marine still smarting from her divorce and desperately trying to take care of her developmentally disabled and legally blind son Zack (Hayden Zaller), with whom Kurt forms an instant kinship. It’s Brenda, a devout Christian, who introduces Kurt to the power and wonder of The Man Upstairs, a plot development that The Erwin Brothers handle — quite shockingly, given their brand — in the most perfunctory way possible. Whereas past films like the aforementioned I Can Only Imagine and I Still Believe placed Christianity at the fore of the narrative, American Underdog seems strangely wary of its religious themes, trotting them out in ways that feel mostly cursory. Indeed, Warner himself is more vocal about his faith in real life than the film about him is, which is a mystifying avenue for this particular project to take, as if the studio was afraid it would turn off potential audiences when in reality it turned those past, more overtly evangelical films into bona fide financial hits.
Setting that thematic flaccidity aside, what has always set the Erwin Brothers apart from their fellow religious filmmaking brethren is that they have honest-to-goodness talent behind the camera, a fact on full display in American Underdog. The football action itself is some of the legitimately best to grace the screen in ages, eschewing obvious handheld theatrics in favor of Steadicam, tracking shots, crane shots, and a combination of intimate close-ups and wide angles, making the fast-paced gameplay easy to watch and follow. There’s a crispness to the imagery, kinetic and otherwise, that here manages to please aesthetically, a feat that rarely accompanies digital filmmaking, even if the duo scoop from the Golden Hour well one too many times, resulting in some of the scenes resembling a particularly beautiful truck commercial. But for all the pleasing compositional work here, the script is still too basic by half, a series of inspirational platitudes that feel stuck on a loop. “You get knocked down, you get back up.” “Winning isn’t winning if I don’t have you by my side!” “Defy the odds!” The fact that Brenda compares her son overcoming brain damage and blindness to Kurt playing NFL football at 27 is a deeply unfortunate parallel to draw, but it’s delivered with such conviction by Paquin that it almost scoots by unnoticed, which is more than can be said of her hair here, running away with the award for year’s worst. In fact, not to pile on, but the entire production is noticeably marred by amateur hair and make-up work, which looks more suited for an SNL skit than a major studio motion picture. Levi, especially, looks like his hair has been colored with black shoe polish, while viewers will likely fear for the security of Quaid’s toupée every time it graces the screen. Still, Levi makes for an affable (if uncomplicated) leading man, his natural charm a perfect fit for a film that goes out of its way to sanctify its main subject, leaving him free of any rough edges. That the Kurt Warner of American Underdog ultimately comes to the realization that he doesn’t want to be defined solely by football, but exists in a film that pretty much does only that, is an irony completely lost on everyone involved. Here, even God themself has to take a back seat to the Kurt Warner football show.