American Underdog is subtitled The Kurt Warner Story. Honestly, though, it just as easily could be subtitled Any Underdog’s Story. Tell me if this sounds familiar. An aging athlete is told that he’ll never go the distance. Through the support of his girlfriend/wife and faith in himself, though, he may take his team to the championship. Throw in an inspirational speech from a coach, a small-town setting, and boom! You’ve got Invincible, The Rookie, and a long list of other crowdpleasers.
Although it sounds like I’m condemning the sports movie genre, it’s admittedly not a bad formula. There’s a reason why these movies keep getting made and why their core fan base isn’t complaining. As easy as it is to nitpick clichés, people enjoy seeing certain tropes no matter how many times they’re repeated. Who doesn’t enjoy a good training montage or the climactic finale that boils down to one crucial play? Granted, it’s ironic that being an underdog entails going against the grain. Yet, underdog movies often blend into each other. Nevertheless, if you’re a fan of this formula, a strong cast and emotional backbone help American Underdog to stand out.
Zachary Levi is well-suited to play Kurt Warner. The role requires someone physically built to play football, but can still pass as an outcast. Levi has pulled off similar roles such as Shazam and Chuck Bartowski. Anna Paquin is equally appealing as Brenda, a single mother who catches his eye. Kurt forms an immediate connection with her son, who’s legally blind. Brenda also has a daughter who kind of gets sidelined. Kurt’s hopes of making it to the NFL are seemingly dashed when he fails to get drafted. Unable to kick his passion for the game, Kurt joins the Arena Football League (RIP). This paves the way for Kurt to land a spot on the St. Louis Rams, but is this robust, muscular, chisel-jawed underdog past his prime?
Being a Kingdom Story Company production from directors Andrew and Jon Erwin, American Underdog naturally has a Christian theme. Unlike a Kirk Cameron movie, though, American Underdog doesn’t come off as too preachy. The film does a commendable job at weaving Warner’s religion into the story without overshadowing the game. When faith does come up, the film effectively shows how religion can help people get through difficult times. Yet, it doesn’t shy away from tragedies with no easy answers. After facing a loss, Brenda is seen asking God why. It would’ve been easy to throw in a scene where a priest tells Brenda that it’s all part of God’s plan. Instead, Brenda must internally work through her grief and anger at God.
American Underdog is by no means a game-changer. For a sports movie from a faith-based studio, though, the film is more charming and layered than one might expect. The performances further elevate the material. In addition to Levi and Paquin, Chance Kelly puts a refreshing spin on the tough-as-nails coach who has his doubts about Warner. Dennis Quaid also turns in a reliably solid performance as the more supportive Dick Vermeil. It’s been almost twenty years since Quaid played Jim Morris, who made his MLB debut the same year that Warner earned his first MVP title. Whether that’s a clever bit of casting or a coincidence, seeing the Rookie and the American Underdog share the screen will surely please fans of the genre.