Written by: Matt Patti | December 24th, 2021
American Underdog (Andrew Erwin/Jon Erwin, 2021) 2½ out of 4 stars.
Super Bowl champion and Pro Football Hall of Famer Kurt Warner is widely considered the greatest undrafted player in NFL history; the two-time NFL MVP is a household name to any football fan. The quarterback played in the NFL for 12 seasons on the Rams, Giants, and Cardinals and played in three Super Bowls, winning one with the Rams in 2000. Many have heard of Warner’s humble beginnings prior to the NFL, but the Erwin brothers’ American Underdogexplores his entire life up to the moment he is signed with the Rams in the late 1990s. It’s an intriguing showcase of a man’s struggle to pursue his one true dream and what he will do to achieve it, although the film’s bland supporting characters, namely Warner’s love interest, threaten to sink the inspiring ship.
American Underdog is based on Kurt Warner’s book All Things Possible and begins with Warner (Zachary Levi, Shazam!) in college at the University of Northern Iowa. He’s a playmaker but struggles to remain inside of the pocket when the pressure closes in, much to his coach’s chagrin. When his time in college comes to an end, Warner enlists an agent to help him get to the NFL. Many around him seriously doubt his chances at making it in the pros, but Warner believes he will be drafted, if only in the later rounds. Unfortunately, Kurt Warner’s name is never called on draft day. From there, he and his girlfriend, Brenda (Anna Paquin, Tell It to the Bees), are unsure of what to do. Warner’s strong will won’t let him give up on his dream, but he also wants to support Brenda and her two children. So, he picks up a job stocking shelves at a local supermarket. When the owner of a local arena-league football team seeks Warner out, however, he sees the opportunity to play the game he loves once again. Little does he know that the Iowa Barnstormers arena-league team will propel him to even greater heights.
Levi plays a fine Kurt Warner in a well-grounded performance. He doesn’t display much emotion and Warner doesn’t seem to have any outstanding, noteworthy traits, but his drive to succeed and his will to keep going, even when all seems lost, is admirable, making him easy to root for. Warner goes through many trials and tribulations between his time in school and his time in the pros, a span of four years in which he struggles to support Brenda and her two children, as well as himself. He also encounters a few tragedies along the way, further adding to the drama and challenges that he faces. His main source of conflict comes about halfway through the film, when he is excelling in the arena league but is far away from home and far away from Brenda. This struggle to balance football life and home life is the most intriguing difficulty that the film explores.
Unfortunately, there is one large issue I have with the film that sours the feel-good, triumphant story. The supporting characters in the film are not very prominent and therefore not very compelling. However, the one supporting character that is seen in much of the film is Warner‘s girlfriend Brenda. Sadly, Paquin’s performance as Brenda is unsatisfactory, in my opinion. There is little chemistry between Levi and Paquin and I just do not buy the relationship at any point in the film. It is difficult for me to see Warner and Brenda being truly in love with one another, and it severely hurts the film because Brenda is such a main focus. It is a combination of poor writing—with cheesy, generic dialogue—and uninspiring performances in the scenes that involve the two together that lead to this poor semblance of romance. The relationship does not work even from the start as their initial encounter is unremarkable and easily forgettable. It’s difficult for me to judge the on-screen portrayal of a real-life person, but based solely on what is in this film, I simply do not enjoy Paquin’s Brenda and do not think the character works very well at all.
The film has a few other issues, including some pacing problems, as much material is told in a short amount of time. This is the case for many films based on true stories. As a result, some important moments happen too quickly and a few issues are resolved far too easily. However, even with these setbacks, Warner‘s story is captivating enough, and his character is likable enough, to hold the film up even when it falters elsewhere. The film showcases Warner’s outstanding morals and caring personality and therefore the audience is able to cheer for him, pouting when he does not get what he wants and celebrating with him when he does. Overall, American Underdog is an underdog of its own, really, overcoming a plethora of different issues to still deliver a charming, heartwarming story that will inspire many.