If you like sports movies, you know this one: a washed-out professional sports figure gets himself in trouble and, much to his dismay, finds himself coaching a scrappy team of losers as punishment. (Later, he’ll probably get a chance to advance his career like he wanted, but choose the kids instead).
It’s a tried-and-true formula that hearkens back to classics like The Longest Yard and The Bad News Bears, and when it’s done right, it feels like a cozy blanket.
The Underdoggs is not the best film in this tradition. Nor is it even the best one in recent memory – I’d put last year’s Next Goal Wins and The Champions (both of which are excellent) ahead of it without hesitation. But while the new football comedy starring Snoop Dogg and Mike Epps is far from the most charming or endearing story of this kind, it is among the funniest, and most edgy.
Snoop Dogg stars as Jaycen “2 Js”Jennings, a self-absorbed retired pro football star who made his millions but never picked up any life lessons along the way. He’s among the best to have ever played the game, but also the most hated. A reality check comes in the form of a hefty community service penalty that puts him back in his hometown of Long Beach, a place he left and never looked back.
While he’s unenthused about the homecoming, getting back in touch with his old homeboy (Mike Epps), former sweetheart (Tika Sumpter), and high school football coach (George Lopez) reminds him about a part of himself – maybe the best part – that he’d left behind, and after taking a peewee coaching job for all the wrong reasons, he comes around to loving the kids and wanting to inspire them to succeed.
The kids are a fun and motley bunch of scrappy geeks and losers, mostly from poor families – underdogs. It’s a charming, if very foul-mouthed, group. As Jennings starts to get to know them we peel back the layers of their various insecurities and problems.
The film is directed by Charles Stone III, who already boasts a really solid sports comedy background with the affably-natured winners Uncle Drew and Mr. 3000. As a comedy, The Underdoggs acquits itself well – it’s very funny, and in that sense I think it’ll be a crowd-pleaser. But it’s far more tonally edgy than those films, with wall to wall f-bombs and vulgarity despite the fact that it’s about – and seemingly targeted to – kids and families.
The film opens by displaying content advisory warning parents that the film is rated R for language, then countering “But fuck all that” and admonishing parents to calm down and enjoy the show, but even so it’s surprisingly naughty. R rated comedies aimed at kids or family audiences are a really tough nut to crack, and always feel tonally confused. This one is no exception.
Besides the constant vulgarity, another thing parents would want to be aware of is that for a sports movie, it champions poor sportsmanship. Obviously it’s a comedy and the edgy stuff is for fun (and it is), but the sanctioning and encouragement of trash-talking and showboating instills the wrong values to kids who may watch. There’s also one scene where Jennings asks one of the kids if he’s ever felt up a girl’s breasts. It’s played for laughs (the kid gets nicknamed “Titties” and it’s eventually even printed on his jersey), but regardless of the context, a grown man randomly asking a prepubescent child about his sexual experience is vile and creepy – full stop.
While Jennings is building relationships and getting to know and like the kids – and building up some narrative goodwill with the audience, he’s also hosting a podcast about himself, boasting in earnest about how much he’s inspiring and helping them. This soliloquy is clearly intended to be endearing but instead makes him transparently a self-aware opportunist, grasping for credibility. It’s bafflingly tone-deaf.
Overall, The Underdoggs is a very funny and enjoyable film, though not one I’d want my kids to watch. It follows a very familiar sports comedy trope, but to its credit tries to do something new with it – even if that’s mostly summed up as being as vulgar as possible and brimming with an excess of attitude. Epps acknowledges the trope by joking at how the situation mirrors The Mighty Ducks, tipping off the audience that the film does have a sense of self-awareness.
It think the best compliment I can pay to The Underdoggs is that there’s a particular kind of pissy but satisfying movie – not a genre, but more of a “fuck you” attitude – that plays especially well when you’re in a bad mood, and I think for a lot of people, this could really be one of those movies.