“Everybody loves an underdog,” or at least the old wisdom goes. The thrill of seeing someone overcome the odds, prove those who doubted them wrong and prove all their hard work to be worth the blood, sweat and tears can serve as an easy means for crowd-pleasing entertainment. Thus when you have a story that combines actual real world achievement, heartwarming romance and can sneak in some not-so-subtle spiritual grounding, you have the recipe for a filmgoing experience that is keyed to entertain across the spectrum.
Thus seems to be the math behind American Underdog, the latest release from Andrew and Joe Erwin. Collectively known as the Erwin Brothers, they are studio heads of the Kingdom Story Company, the Christian-oriented wing of Lionsgate, as well as its primary creative voices. They start from a good position by pulling the real life accomplishment of Kurt Warner, one of the most legitimately unlikely stories in the history of the NFL. Warner, who was undrafted out of college, went on to spend five years working nights at a grocery store, only to make enough of a splash in Arena Football League to get hired by the St. Louis Rams. After stumbling into the starting quarterback position, Warner in his rookie year led the Rams to a Super Bowl Victory, and was named MVP for both the season and the Super Bowl.
Unfortunately for the Erwins, Warner’s story is inspiring enough to seem good fodder for the film, but by transferring him to a film protagonist, they never quite find a center for his motivations that make for a compelling film. They attempt to find a parallel narrative with tracking his relationship with eventual wife Brenda, to give the film a romantic hook in addition to the inspirational one. The end result is a film that never quite settles into a singular narrative, but rather seems split between the football movie, the romance movie and spiritual journey, never quite certain which it is most invested in. Which is not to say the film is quite a failure; it just never ascends beyond the basics of story summary that delves much deeper beneath the skin than a cursory review of Warner’s life would tell you.
It benefits from smart casting, primarily in Zachary Levi as Warner. Beyond just striking a similar square-jawed, All-American image to the real Warner, Levi’s strength as a presence in film has always been something of a star-eyed optimism. It is what Shazam captured so well with him, and while he lacks the sense of boyish excitement that performance mandates, he does always seem wide-eyed and in wonder of the world around him. This is a strength for the film, as Levi immediately communicates Warner as likeable. But it also can make him at times seem overly perfect; the film constantly beautifies Warner as someone with limitless patience, talent and above all faith. Faith in the divine to be sure, but also faith in his own ability. Levi’s Warner is a stalwart in the face of all hardship, rarely cracking. Which, while inspiring in reality, makes for fairly static storytelling.
It also conflict with the second main character in the story, Anna Paquin’s Brenda, Kurt Warner’s love interest who he meets at a honky tonk and instantly falls for. Brenda is an ex-marine and single mother of two, including her son Zach (Hayden Zaller) who is legally blind. Due to a rocky previous marriage, she has guarded defenses up around welcoming Warner into her orbit. But when a good portion of the film is Warner time and again proving his saintliness, her constant guardedness comes across as more stubborn than vulnerable. Paquin plays these interactions with as much sincerity as she can muster, but her chemistry with Levi (which is positive for sections) is dulled by these back and forths. It is the film demanding a conflict, but it never quite reads as genuine.
Other supporting actors fair slightly better, especially Dennis Quad who comes in the final act of the film as Rams head coach Dick Vermeil, a wizened leader who sees the greatness in Warner that we as audience are shown from the very beginning. Vermeil’s portrayal is fairly emblematic for most supporting characters though: passer-bys who look on in awe at the ability and determination of Warner’s accomplishment. It is a story of an individual’s greatness being rewarded through hard work and determination. By the time you reach the triumphant ending, it is more inevitable than thrilling.
All of this could read as something of a vanity project, especially when you realize Kurt and Brenda are producers on the film. But it seems far less insidious than that: Warner is just a figure that seems to exhibit qualities that make him an exceptional person and a boring subject for a film. After all, one of the things about Kurt Warner’s story that makes him so inspiring was his ability to remain grounded despite how unexpected his rise was.
But that decency and competency never quite thrills, though the football scenes can have exhilarating moments. The end result is an audience reaction that defaults more to “Good for him” than fist-pumping ecstasy. But perhaps a pleasant story about a decent man overcoming his challenges has a place in our current world, and American Underdog never seems to be all that concerned than being much more than that: pleasant and warm, going down easy.