In 1994, out-of-work quarterback Kurt Warner was stocking supermarket shelves for $5.50 an hour. Five years later, he was the NFL’s most valuable player both for the season and for the Super Bowl, where he led his St. Louis Rams to the world championship.
Now, that’s an American success story, and the wonder is only that it’s taken this long for someone to make a movie about it.
In American Underdog, a film that explores the mythos of athletic heroism through an unapologetic prism of decency and faith, Warner finally gets his due in the person of star Zachary Levi, who plays him with all the aw-shucks, down-home, he-man humility you’d expect from a real-life Golden Boy.
Faith-based filmmakers sometimes take bum rap for making movies that drip with cheap sentiment and easy moralizing. But American Underdog is directed by Andrew and Jon Erwin, whose earlier films, including I Can Only Imagine and I Still Believe, generally found ways to instinctively appeal to a Christian audience while inviting non-believers to be something more than casual — or even reluctant — observers. It’s a successful formula, one they again pull off here with the casual efficiency of a backfield handoff.
Their cause is aided greatly thanks to the script by David Aaron Cohen, who wrote Friday Night Lights, one of the best football films ever, and The Miracle Season, the absolute best women’s volleyball film ever. Here, Cohen captures the rhythms of a football life; the highs and lows on the field and many ways they all spill over beyond the playing field.
But mostly, the filmmakers let Warner’s remarkable story provide a ready-made narrative arc, from his frustrating early years as an undrafted college player through his ascendancy to the rarified air of NFL superstar. As played by Levi — who was a delight in the superhero fantasy Shazam! and on cable’s Marvelous Mrs. Maisel — Warner is driven at first by his own personal ambition to become a world-class quarterback…and later by a faith-based desire to be the best man he can be.
Naturally, it helps to have the support of a devoted spouse, and as Warner’s wife Brenda, Anna Paquin alternately encourages her hubby toward his destiny while reminding him of where he’s been. As is the case in the best faith-based family dramas, Paquin’s funny, confident woman is a reassuring reminder of just how sexy virtue can be.
Every movie sports hero needs that grizzled old coach who dishes out some tough love, and in American Underdog Warner gets two. First up is Bruce McGill as Warner’s Arena Football League coach, a guy who doesn’t care one bit about Warner’s lack of professional credentials so long as he can put a football in the end zone. In one of the film’s most engaging moments, Warner is stunned when his coach peels off a hundred-dollar bill, right in the middle of the game, and hands it to him following a touchdown. Levi’s reaction shot is priceless: His eyes light up with the realization, for the first time, that there might actually be real money to be had in this game.
Then comes the man who made Warner a star: St. Louis Rams coach Dick Vermeil, who had no choice but to turn to his backup quarterback when starter Trent Green suffered a season-ending injury. Dennis Quaid, who has starred in his share of sports dramas, brings gruff authenticity to the role of the guy who must swallow his own uncertainties while coaching up the new guy. I’m still having some trouble getting used to Quaid, one of the movies’ most durably dashing leading man, as the Old Guy in any film—but then I just need to look in a mirror and think, “Oh, yeah…”
I don’t need to tell you there are corners of this country where fans believe God roots for their home team. American Underdog pushes back at that notion, finding a comfy medium where faith and football take their rightful places — and the story of a good man simply being true to himself provides all the drama you need.
Featured image: American Underdog (Michael Kubeisy/Lionsgate)
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