A rousing sports triumph!
This review of the film American Underdog does not contain spoilers.
Anyone who remembers Kurt Warner’s indescribable run from overnight Iowa stockboy to the NFL can’t help but look back upon his career as anything but cinematic. Even just making it to the NFL for a year would have been an accomplishment. Instead, he took the St. Louis Rams to Super Bowl glory. He won the league MVP and Super Bowl MVP at age 28. One of all the oldest second-year players in league history. It was an improbable run that led to a hall of fame career. That, perhaps, is only matched by the reputation he has built as a good man off of it.
Yes, it is manipulative—a handcuff of the Christian genre. Yet, what makes American Underdog such a rousing experience is that the film gives equal treatment to his time on the football field and his personal life. Warner (played by a perfectly cast Zachary Levi), playing for an I-AA college football team, to a cow field surrounded by big round bales of hay, and then in a newfound Arena football league. It’s incomprehensible how it all happened and together.
By his side is a woman he meets barn dancing. That’s his future wife Brenda (Academy Award winner Anna Paquin). She is a veteran who has had a rough go in life. Brenda has one badly failed marriage. She is a single mother living with her parents. Brenda has two children. The youngest is her precocious little daughter, Jesse (Cora Kate Wilkerson). The other is Zack, her young son who has special needs. He is legally blind, stemming from being dropped on his head by his biological father as an infant.
Their struggles are on full display. She is three years older and trying to finish nursing school. He is working odds jobs, a man who is salt of the earth. All while trying to stay in football shape until he gets his big break. They are in such dire straights that they cannot afford to pay the heating bill during one of Iowa’s deadliest blizzards. When he is about to realize his field of dreams has frozen over, he swallows his pride to play for the new Des Moines Arena League owner, Jim Foster (Bruce McGill). His pursuit of happiness involves swallowing a little dignity.
American Underdog was written for the Erwin brothers. A duo known for its Christian filmography. I Can Only Imagine being their biggest hit, grossing an impressive 86 million dollars worldwide. It’s a perfect pairing; we’ll know Midwest Christian values and Andrew and Jon Erwin’s southern Bible belt upbringing with Warner’s. While there is something very Christian in the air with their movie here, it is not nearly as ecumenism or even non-denominational as their previous work. It’s an environment with a religious milieu. Still, besides one scene with Levy’s Warner asking his wife Brenda about her strong beliefs, it’s hardly noticeable enough that it would take away from the film’s impactful story.
Then again, there is nothing wrong with the genre. If done well. This being 2021, being a good Christian is about as politically correct as being a Republican. Being a good Christian can be looked up to practice as its unique subculture. Which, in part, makes it somewhat interesting because you can be unfamiliar with it. However, the main pitfalls of the genre are never the production issues such as cinematography that can look like a soap opera or poor lighting (though those are problems). It’s the fact that the morals and values should be underlying themes, consistently take over the story.
That’s what is refreshing about American Underdog. It is an underlying current that is hardly talked about, but you know is there. The struggles to achieve your dreams is what anyone can relate to. Sure, there is an overdone and uncomfortable embrace with Head Coach Dick Vermeil (Dennis Quaid) that made me say out loud, “boundaries, coach.” The villainous Mike Martz attitude is too easily explained away. Yet, the Erwin brother’s script intentionally plotting the majority of the film away from the NFL heroism makes the payoff even more impactful even though you know the ending.
The movie may be too dependent on your love for football, but Kurt and Brenda Warner’s story is too incredible to be true. It should still garner appreciation just as much as one could be impressed with someone from blustery Maine ending up on Broadway winning a Tony. American Underdog is that feel-good film you admire for the emotions it arouses and the admiration it creates. The film is for anyone who has struggled in life to pursue unreachable aspirations. For the dreamers. As much for the ones who failed as the ones who found achievement.
It’s emotional triumph just as much on the field as it was off it.