American Underdog, 2021.
Directed by Jon Erwin and Anthony Erwin.
Starring Zachary Levi, Anna Paquin, Dennis Quaid, Hayden Zaller, Bryce Bruckbauer, Beau Hart, Ser’Darius Blain, Chance Kelly, Simeon Castille, Bruce McGill, Adam Baldwin, Cindy Hogan, Nicholas Harris, Steven Chester Prince, Dean Denton, and Kevin Downes.
The story of NFL MVP and Hall of Fame quarterback, Kurt Warner, who went from stocking shelves at a supermarket to becoming an American Football star.
It’s established during Kurt Warner’s (played here by Zachary Levi, boasting intimidating quarterback physique and genuine passion for loved ones and football) college days that he has trouble sticking in the pocket (a designated circular area on the football field that is both within proximity to defensive players while also allowing enough space and peripheral vision for precise passing), often retreating further back from lacking trust in his offensive lineman resulting in generally lobbing balls up in the air. That’s not to say Kurt was not having success during these early times, but the wisest creative choice the directorial Erwin Brothers (Jon Erwin and Andrew Erwin, known for recent faith-based projects such as I Still Believe) make here in American Underdog is applying that mentality to his everyday life and personal relationships.
Perhaps screenwriter David Aaron Cohen is pulling on this thread from Michael Silver and Kurt Warner’s book All Things Possible, which American Underdog happens to be based on. Whatever the case may be, Kurt becomes smitten with the line dancing Brenda (Anna Paquin making the most of the supportive and encouraging love interest). She also turns out to have two children leftover from a previous toxic relationship, with young Zack (Hayden Zaller) diagnosed as legally blind. None of this stops Kurt from harmlessly ingratiating himself into their lives more, making a solid first impression on Zack by fixing one of his radios.
While this newly developing relationship is starting smoothly (although Kurt’s mom Sue, played by Cindy Hogan, has reservations about her son getting mixed up into such a challenging dynamic that resembles her own path of motherhood), Kurt sticks to his dream of one day playing professionally hoping to be a late-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft. Things sort of go his way, but the smallest of hesitations and second-guessing are seen as weaknesses on both the field and in real life. As Kurt’s ambitious goals become more and more of a potential reality and the relationship evolves, and Brenda asks him if he envisions himself with them forever, you can practically sense him backing out of the pocket of life as he stumbles to get his answer out quick enough in a reassuring manner.
There’s also the fact that Brenda doesn’t even like sports, so when Kurt is offered a consolation job playing Arena Football which he derides as carnival shame, it feels like there’s a heated verbal argument waiting to happen. It never occurs. She remains loyal and supportive, although he reluctantly takes on the position while stocking part-time at an Iowa supermarket. Brenda instills into his mind that sometimes the work less desired is a means to an end to fulfillment, which works for this sentimental fare. She’s also not about to let him slip into a life of partying as he gains popularity, giving Anna Paquin a bit more to do in the role.
These are all fascinating angles that American Underdog never fully dives into, partially due to its decidedly family-oriented tone and preference to function as an inspirational sports story, all with a measured blue-collar and surprisingly non-offputting slice of Christian values. Some subplots arise ranging from blizzards to familial tragedy, all of which come across as hitting the key life events that shaped both everlasting love and a whirlwind legendary NFL career. Somehow, these elements also don’t necessarily feel rushed, but relatively efficient storytelling beats.
Some sections and aspects are underwritten, but the characters are mostly well-written and acted with sharp enough focus. Even better is that once Kurt inevitably makes his way onto the Rams (with Dennis Quaid as a coach reliably mustering up a couple of fine motivational speeches), the reenacted football is also excitingly shot with all the urgency and suspense of an actual NFL drive. I’m not willing to say the Erwin Brothers have scored a touchdown with American Underdog, but a field goal seems like a fair comparison. Zachary Levi sheds some of his comedic charms and makes a case for more dramatic work. Consider him the extra point swinging the score in the film’s favor.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com