American Underdog (2021) Review

DESTINY BELONGS TO THE UNDERDOGS


 

As the saying goes “baseball is the American pastime sport”, but nothing is more exciting and more American than watching / playing football. Men dressed in padded uniforms and protective helmets, battling and clashing with a rival team on a designated battlefield, coaches and players screaming plays and orders, a mass crowd of fans cheering from the bleachers, and a plethora of vendors serving foods, snacks, and beer in the air of a crisp autumn day. In amongst the various popular film genres of action, comedy, drama, horror, and animated, the sports film genre is one that has found an interesting niche within the collective work of cinematic tales. While a few have been based on fictional narrations such as The Game Plan, Draft Day, Rudy, The Longest Yard, and Any Given Sunday, most football movies are “based on a true story”, detailing a wide variety of struggles and obstacles both on and outside the field, including Remember the Titans (racial adversity), We are Marshall, Concussion, and When the Game Stands Tall (adversity), Invincible and The Blind Slide (personal struggle), and Brian’s Song (camaraderie friendship) just to name a few. Now, Lionsgate and director Andrew and Jon Erwin present the latest American football sports drama feature with the release of American Underdog; a biographical into the life and story of Pro NFL Football Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner. Does this movie finds warmth and strength within Warner’s journey to play football or does the feature flounder when trying to piece together Kurt’s life?

THE STORY


Ever since he was young boy, Kurt Warner (Zachary Levi) has always dreamed of going pro and playing the National Football League; quenching the thirst for the passion of the game. However, his efforts have only made him a middling college football player, struggling to find his own rhythm and personal finesse to make his mark on the game. One night, after being coerce by a friend to attend a country bar, Kurt falls head over heels for local named Brenda (Anna Paquin), a single mother who finds a connection with the young man. While the two share an instant bond, Brenda discourages the advances, only to change her mind after seeing Kurt finds warmth to her two children, especially her oldest, Zack (Hayden Zaller), who is legally blind. Trying to balance a courtship with Brenda and his passion for football, Kurt gets a chance to try out for big-leagues, only to blow the opportunity the moment he gets there. Discouraged and struggling to find a paid job, Kurt moves in with Brenda as the pair begin to struggle to balance their personal lives with each other, with the young man soon taking a job stocking shelves at a local grocery store. As fate would have it, another shot comes when he’s recruited to play in the arena football league. Despite initially thinking that this new pseudo-football sport is beneath him, Kurt vows to give it his all, setting a series of events that will change not only his life, but also the life of Brenda and her two kids.

THE GOOD / THE BAD


Despite my love for football (grew up with since I was young), I never really played the game beyond playing a season of flag football in the peewee league…. even though I probably could’ve played the game as a linebacker or some type of defensive end. Anyway, with my knowledge of football of watching, experiencing it, and seeing it being played first hand with professional, I’ve come to appreciate the sport is probably one of my favorite sports to enjoy being played. Some might be basketball, or baseball, or even soccer. For me, it’s football. Thus, when it comes to cinematic storytelling, I can see why the narratives found in gridiron game of American football is quite appealing. The coaches, the various players, the corporate / business owner complexity, the rivalry tension, and the striving underdog common thread are usually present in some shape or form. Thus, Hollywood utilizing football for some of the theatrical feature films definitely works, with some of my personal favorite ones being Rudy, Remember the Titans, Concussion, Any Given Sunday, and Draft Day; finding each one to showcase a sort of different view / angle of how the game is played. In the end, I think that the overall fascination of American football is one that has fixed point of interest and creating such cinematic tales are always a definite “crowd pleaser” of playing the game of pigskin.

This brings me back to talking about American Underdog, a 2021 biography film that looks to examine (underneath a cinematic light) the story of American NFL football player Kurt Warner. To be quite honest, I really didn’t hear much about this movie when it was first announced. Maybe because it was low-budget project or maybe it was because it sort of got lost due to the events of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whatever the case, I really didn’t much about this upcoming sports drama film until a few months ago when I first saw the film’s movie trailers when I went to my local movie theater…. during the “coming attractions” preview reel. From the trailer alone, the movie did look quite appealing to me. As I mentioned, I do like football and movies about football, with this upcoming feature looking to have a good sense of storytelling driven moment, especially since it would be shining a spotlight on Pro Football Hall of Fame QB player Kurt Warner. Plus, trailer gave off that “faith-based” vibe, which I do enjoy on occasion, so I was definitely looking forward to seeing this movie when it was due out on Christmas Day (December 25th) of 2021. Unfortunately, with a work schedule being quite busy during the holiday season (retail…ugh!) and several movie reviews that I had to do prior, I didn’t get the chance to see the movie until a few weeks after its initial release (saw mid-January of 2022) and waited a week and half until I complete several other movie reviews that I needed to get down. Now, I finally have the time to share my personal thoughts on American Underdog. And what did I think of it? Well, I liked it. Despite a few familiar beats of being derivate and a predictable of the faith-based variety, American Underdog is a satisfying and emotionally charged inspirational bio-drama film that stands tall and proud; presenting a heartfelt narrative to Kurt Warner’s amazing life story. It’s not as polish or original as some might expect it to be, but it’s wholesome and resoundingly clear “feel good” movie through and through….and that’s a good thing!

Based on the biography book “All Things Possible: My Story of Faith, Football, and the First Miracle Season” by Kurt Warner and Michael Silver, American Underdog is directed the Erwin brothers (Andrew and Jon Erwin), whose previous directorial works include such films as I Still Believe, I Can Only Imagine, and Woodlawn. Thus, given the story of Warner’s life and their past experience of inspirational feature films endeavors, having the Erwin brothers helm such a project like American Underdog seem like a suitable choice; approaching the material in making an inspirational faith-based movie that is mixed with a sports drama picture. In their concoction of all this, the Erwin brothers make the film have a little bit of different feeling from their typical Christian faith-based endeavor. Yes, there are still elements and moments where the feature, especially the writing, dips into the familiar territory of being tad cheesy (more on that below), but, for the most part, the movie sort of steers clear by being too preachy or having a secular viewpoints upon religion. What’s created from all of this is a sort of “feel good” movie that Erwin brothers give boundaries to; allowing for a feature’s story to tell a very honest and gritty look at a man’s journey through trials, tribulations, and emotional perseverance to reach his desire passion. There are plenty of emotional scenes in the movie that will certainly tug at the heartstrings and might even shed a tear or two while watching them, with the Erwin brothers shaping those particular scenes in a sincere and honest way that don’t feel manufactured way, which makes those emotional scenes that much more meaningful and easily can connect to without feeling clunky.

Naturally, the film’s screenplay, which was penned by Jon Erwin as well as Jon Gunn, and David Aaron Cohen, delves into the various facets of Kurt’s life; examining his family life with Brenda and the struggles that they both share in trying to make their lives work around each other’s passions, jobs, and children. The screenplay does get some good kudos points by presenting Kurt’s struggles in a very honest or sometimes emotional way. It never goes to darker place and keeps the danger to PG rating of sorts, but there is still plenty of personal obstacles and challenges that the screenplays allows to unfold throughout the course of American Underdog. In truth, much of Kurt’s life is rooted in the “underdog” mantra, with the film playing up the namesake for a passionate story of one man’s dream to make into the NFL. Heck, the story of Warner’s first year of being with the St. Louis Rams is truly an underdog / Cinderella story, which the film touches upon towards the finale.Of course, being a sports drama, the Erwin brothers do feature a good dose of football action. From early days of backyard throwing balls to playing in the professional league, American Underdog shows a variety of football scenes of which Kurt Warner plays throughout, which certainly does have a fun and energetic sequences that are terrific to watch. Definitely keeps things exciting and interesting, elevating some of the more poignant moments of Kurt’s dream of becoming a pro in the NFL. Overall, while there are some things that the film stumbles around on, the Erwin brothers do a good job in bringing Warner’s story to light; projecting the right amount of heartfelt warmth, inspirational moments, and football aesthetics to make the feature meaningful and inspiring to view…..no matter if you are football fan or not.

In the presentation category, American Underdog is a relatively good production, which provides the necessary and believable backdrop setting to make the film’s story have that gritty “real life” feeling. While the production budget for this project was low (roughly near $25 million), I think that the Erwin brothers did a great job utilizing the budget that was given to them; smartly using the necessary funds for various elements in making the feature. The film does a great job in bring the movie’s Midwest setting to life, with a gritty and almost honest look at Kurt’s humble beginning and the life conditions that he and Brenda faced in their early part of their marriage together. Thus, the movie’s “behind the scenes” team, including Nicole Elespuru (production design), Jennifer Herbel (set decorations), and Karyn Wagner (costume designs) should be praised for their efforts on the project for help create such a believable world. Additionally, the film’s cinematography work by Kristopher Kimlin does have a few areas in the movie of where his talents are put to use, including several slick camera angles during football montage sequences. Lastly, the film’s score, which was composed by John Debney, is a good one, which hits all the right melodic notes throughout the feature’s presentation….be rousing moments to quite heartwarming scenes.

Unfortunately, there are a few pieces and parts that are scattered throughout American Underdog that the film can’t overcome or can’t iron out completely to make for streamlined iteration of Kurt Warner’ story. As mentioned above, the film does have elements of a Christian faith-based movie, with the project navigating its way through such familiar plot points and narrative beats and, while there is nothing wrong with this, there are a few times where the movie treads into a few faith-based moments that come off as a bit cheesy, including writing dialogue lines and certain situations. Granted, from the movie trailer alone, I sort of knew that this was going to be the case, so it didn’t bother me a great deal. Heck, I even enjoy a few of those faith-based endeavors such as I Can Only Imagine, Indivisible, and Overcomer. So, seeing this American Underdog, didn’t phase me as some might feel about. However, I certainly can’t deny the fact that there were a few times that I sort of cringed a few cheesy lines that are clearly marked for the inspiration faith-based fanbase out there.

In addition to this, the movie does follow a familiar path of being certainly predictable with not much surprises. Basically, if you fully know the story of Kurt Warner (maybe watched a sports documentary on him or read one of his biography books about him) then the feature’s narrative might not offer that much of surprises, especially since his life has been documented. As I mentioned above, I really didn’t know much about Warner’s personal story to fame beyond a few snippets here and there, so this particular aspect wasn’t a big deal for me. That being said, the movie does incorporate the classic “zero to hero” character journey path, so, in this regard, one could easily draw a conclusion of where the movie will end without known Warner’s story to its fullest extent. There still excitement, sadness, and inspiration moments to experience on this film’s journey, but following a proven formula is something where is sort of pitfall for the feature’s path. Additionally, the movie, while not feeling bloated, does hit a few pacing snags, especially during the middle portion of the narrative.

Also, the film, while telling an honest and hard look at one man’s journey to football stardom with compelling drama is worthwhile and heartwarming to view, the actual game of football gets placed on the backburner a few times. Don’t me wrong, the elements of football are still present throughout the movie and are definite treat to watch, especially seeing various key players of the game (younger versions of themselves) as well as Warner’s journey to reach his ultimate goal, but the movie is more of inspirational drama than a sports drama. Thus, those expecting the movie to be more like Remember the Titans, Invincible, Draft Day, or Any Given Sunday, will be a little bit disappointed with American Underdog. Again, I sort of knew that this was going to be the case, but I did kind of wanted the film’s ending, which depicts Warner’s first game in the NFL, to have a little more finesse and robust feeling than what was presented for a grand and epic finale piece. What’s presented works, but I wanted to see a bit more grit for rousing epic conclusion.

What definitely helps overcome those points of criticisms is in the feature’s cast, which great across the board, with the movie selecting a fine grouping of capable actors and actresses to play these wide variety of characters (both leading and supporting players) in the movie. Leading the charge of the feature and the “big ticketed” star of the film is actor Zachary Levi who plays the central main protagonist character of Kurt Warner. Known for his roles in Chuck, Tangled, and Shazam!, Levi has always been known for being a charismatic person as well as having a likeable personality, which is clearly shows in his past endeavors in his acting career. Thus, it comes at no surprise that Levi would want to do an inspiration bio-pic project like this and playing someone who is likeable and “down to earth” as Kurt Warner. It is because of this that Levi excels in the role, playing such a very likeable character that is quite easy to root for throughout the entire film. He definitely conveys the thematic message of Warner’s passion and determination as well as his compassionate feeling towards Brenda and to her two kids. Levi does good at handling the comedic levity parts (as what he’s known for doing), but also does great job in the more “heavy lifting” dramatic scenes quite well. Thus, altogether, Levi is perfect in portraying Kurt Warner and I’m sure that Warner himself would appreciate the actor doing his character some justice on the silver screen.

Similarly, actress Anna Paquin does an exceptional job in portraying Brenda, Kurt’s love interest and eventually wife. Known for her roles in X-Men, True Blood, and The Affair, Paquin has a good and steady career, with her past performance showcasing her acting chops a wide variety of genres and filmmaking landscapes. Thus, to see her in something like American Underdog, seems right at home, with the actress easily sliding into her portrayal of Brenda Warner. Paquin has a very unique gift in being approachable and sincere, which is showcased in the movie beautifully, as well as showcasing the heartfelt struggles and joyous moments that she shares with Kurt along their journey together. Plus, it also helps that she and Levi have a immediate on-screen connection with each other, which helps build upon their character relationship of Kurt and Brenda. All in all, I think both of the two acting talents are great in American Underdog and help strengthen the feature; finding both capable handling some of the more dramatic moments of the feature’s narrative.

Beyond Levi and Paquin, I would definitely have to say that young actor Hayden Zaller, who plays Brenda’s biological son / Kurt’s adoptive son Zack. While Zaller is a relatively unknown young star, his impact in American Underdog is utterly profound; playing such a compelling and loving character that will surely melt anyone’s heart. The kindness and friendly demeanor that Zaller portrayals in the movie quite moving to behold and his interactions with Levi is quite loving to watch, which definitely helps buy into their character relationship of Kurt and Zack bonding with each other. Kudos and hats off to Zaller’s performance in the movie!

With the movie being based on real life, American Underdog features a plethora of famous coaches and football players that had interacted with Kurt Warner during the film’s time period, with a selection of fine actors that play these respective people in the movie’s supporting roles. This includes actor Dennis Quaid (I Can Only Imagine and Midway) as St. Louis Rams coach Dick Vermil, actor Chance Kelly (Generation Kill and Fringe) as St. Louis Rams’s offensive coordinator Mike Martz, actor Adam Baldwin (Independence Day and The Last Ship) as head coach of University of Northern Iowa Terry Allen, actor Bruce McGill (Rizzoli & Isles and Law Abiding Citizen) as founder and first commissioner of the Arena Football League Jim Foster, stunt performer O.J. Keith Simpson (Focus and Brian Banks) as St. Louis Rams running back Marshall Faulk, actor Nicholas Harris (Focus) as Baltimore Ravens’s middle linebacker Ray Lewis, stunt performer / actor Christopher Rhodes (Gang Related and The Wedding Ringer) as defensive end Reggie White, actor Brett Varvel (The War Within and Play the Flute) as Green Bay quarterback coach Steve “Mooch” Mariucci, actor Ben Kacsandi (Please Tell Me I’m Adopted and Safety) as St. Louis Rams quarterback Trent Green, and Matt Bassuener, who makes his debut in the movie as Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre. Again, some of these characters might have larger supporting roles than others (some are just cameo appearances), but I believe that all of these portrayals are well-represented to their real-life counterpart.

The rest of the cast, including actor Ser’Darius Blain (Jumanji: The Next Level and The Last Full Measure) as Kurt’s college friend Mike Hudnutt, actress Cindy Hogan (The Case of Christ and Boy Erased) as Kurt’s mother Sue Warner, and Cora Wilkerson, who makes her debut in the film as Brenda’s youngest child Jesse Jo Warner, are made up several other supporting players in the movie; most of which are connected to Kurt Warner’s personal life.

FINAL THOUGHTS


Do what you can do, till you can do what you want to do…. words echoed in the back of Kurt Warner’s mind as he struggles to find a proper footing in his passionate dream of making it to the NFL in the movie American Underdog. Directors Andy and Jon Erwin latest film takes a look into the life of Kurt Warner, showcasing the hardship struggles and personal joys that he faced on his road to the football field. While the feature does fall prey to some derivate and conventional formats of storytelling and familiar beats, the movie still rises to the occasion and proves to be better than at first glance…thanks to the Erwin brother’s direction, a wholesome sincere message, terrific emotional moments, and a great cast across the board. Personally, I liked this movie. It was definitely an engaged and inspirational bio-pic drama that mixes sports aesthetics and a few faith-based nuances to create something work watching. Plus, I thought that both Levi and Paquin were great in the movie. Thus, my recommendation for the film would be a favorable “recommended” one, especially fans of the faith-based variety as well as sports fans who are looking for a wholesome story (underneath a cinematic light) of Kurt Warner’s life and the journey that he went on to get where he’s at today. Overall, even though there are a few areas where the feature could’ve been ironed out better, American Underdog is a fine inspirational underdog movie that should garner attention and viewers with its positive messages of dreams, determination, family, and never giving up on one’s passion / dream. Just as Dick Vermeil says to Kurt Warner in the movie “Destiny belongs to the underdogs” and American Underdog prove that point to the letter.

4.0 Out of 5 (Recommended)

 

Released On: December 25th, 2021
Reviewed On: February 1st, 2022

American Underdog  is 112 minutes long and is rated PG for some language and thematic elements

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