American Underdog

American Underdog

2021, PG, 112 min. Directed by Jon Erwin, Andrew Erwin. Starring Zachary Levi, Anna Paquin, Ser’Darius Blain, Hayden Zaller, Dennis Quaid, Bruce McGill, Chance Kelly, Adam Baldwin, Steven Chester Prince.

REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Dec. 24, 2021

This affirmational biopic with the grandiose title wears its Christian-themed inspiration with a capital “I” as it recounts the trials and triumphs of NFL football player Kurt Warner (Levi), the first undrafted quarterback and first-year starter to lead his team to a Super Bowl victory, just five years after stocking shelves at a grocery store. Following the oft-dreaded opening “Based on a true story” salvo, American Underdog immediately informs you it’s the story of an impossible dream, one in which a midwestern Don Quixote doggedly tilts at the hierarchal structure of professional football in a struggle to prove his worth to himself, his supportive wife (Paquin, rocking a Pat Benatar 'do), and the powers-that-be, embracing a near-unwavering faith in God each step of the way. His prayers are ultimately answered in the form of St. Louis Rams coach Dick Vermeil, paternally played by an alligator-grinned Dennis Quaid, who hires Levi long after his expiration date on a hunch akin to divine intervention.

Without a doubt, Warner’s extraordinary ascension to pigskin glory is the stuff of legend, given the odds stacked against him. He failed to make the draft after sitting on the bench for most of his four-year stint at a small Division 1-AA college in Iowa; lasted only two days during his pre-season try-out for the Green Bay Packers a year later; and ended up helming a team in the lowly Arena Football League (think Rollerball with cleats) to financially support his family. But do we really need the platitude-laden screenplay (based on Warner’s autobiography, less arrogantly entitled All Things Possible) to preach a you-can-do-it homily every 15 minutes or so, as its real-life hero’s dubious aspirations move toward rah-rah reality? It’s terribly exhausting.

Levi projects a good-guy quality that endears Warner, but his limitations as an actor (his go-to expression here is wide-eyed and winsome) impede plumbing any depth in a character that’s admittedly crafted as one-dimensional. On the other hand, the physical resemblance between Levi and Warner is uncanny, the former’s linebacker build and handsome mug undoubtedly factors in his casting. (And to be fair, the guy has paid his dues.) While Levi gives you someone to genuinely root for, once the movie reaches Warner’s debut game for the Rams in 1999, all nuance goes out the window as you’re pounded into semi-hysterical submission to cheer for a proverbial win for the gipper. And when the same season’s Super Bowl XXXIV is hurriedly crammed into the movie’s ending (volume up!), using interspersed footage of the actual game to attempt cinéma vérité realness, American Underdog becomes scarily ecstatic, religious in its fervor for the manufactured thrills of a professional sport many believe has lost sight of its original core values. American maybe, but hardly underdog.

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American Underdog, Jon Erwin, Andrew Erwin, Zachary Levi, Anna Paquin, Ser’Darius Blain, Hayden Zaller, Dennis Quaid, Bruce McGill, Chance Kelly, Adam Baldwin, Steven Chester Prince

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