Arriving just in time to be an attractive four-quadrant option for family outings to the megaplexes during the holiday season — provided, of course, that the latest COVID surge doesn’t cause another round of movie theater shuttering — “American Underdog” is a thoroughly predictable yet hugely entertaining sports biopic that is bound to please almost anyone who’s not a sourball cynic or a snarky critic.
Much of its appeal stems from Zachary Levi’s winningly sincere portrayal of Kurt Warner, the football phenom whose improbable ascent from grocery clerk to NFL superstar by way of a warmup in the Arena League is the sort of true-life story that seems almost too good to be true, even when it’s told as well as it is here.
But while Levi undeniably is the most valuable player, he likely wouldn’t score quite so impressively without a strong supporting-player team that includes Anna Paquin as Brenda, Kurt’s supportive girlfriend and eventual wife; Dennis Quaid as Dick Vermeil, the St. Louis Rams coach who takes a chance on Warner as a fellow underrated underdog; Bruce McGill as Jim Foster, the Arena League team owner and coach who cheerfully exploits Warner during the latter’s time in the wilderness; and Ser’Darius Blain as Mike Hudnutt, Warner’s best buddy and college roommate, who evidently makes some kind of movie history as the first Black man who has to teach a white dude the proper way to dance to country music.
Good thing Warner is a quick learner, because that makes him better able to woo Brenda, a divorced single mom and ex-Marine, once he charms her on the dance floor at her favorite country-and-western bar. That’s what it takes, because Brenda doesn’t know or care much about football, and is not impressed — at first, that is — by his accomplishments as a quarterback at the nearby University of Northern Iowa.
NFL scouts are even less impressed, and Warner is passed over on draft day. Worse, when he does get a chance to try out for the Green Bay Packers, he’s sent packing after only two days in training camp. Warner finds it difficult if not impossible to keep his dreams of gridiron glory alive, and eventually puts them on the back burner to be a better provider for Brenda and her two children — one of whom, Zack (Hayden Zaller), is vision- and brain-impaired.
He is skeptical, if not downright insulting, when Foster tries to recruit him for the Arena League, which even Foster describes as “a circus” that is “football at the speed of NASCAR.” But hey, playing in the rough-and-tumble minor league is a good way to pay the bills. And yes, an even better way to get noticed, after years of post-collegiate obscurity, by the NFL.
“American Underdog” comes to us by way of Jon and Andrew Erwin, the sibling filmmakers who bill themselves as the Erwin Brothers, and specialize in well-crafted faith-based movies such as “Woodlawn,” “I Still Believe” and the 2018 sleeper hit “I Can Only Imagine.” They uncharacteristically but effectively underplay their religious themes here — indeed, audiences unfamiliar with the Erwins’ previous output might simply assume Warner is no more eager to implore and thank God than many if not most NFL players.
On the other hand, both Kurt and (especially) Brenda are matter-of-factly portrayed as religious folks. And it’s a bit amusing to see that no other 21st-century film dealing with professional sports has showcased so many athletes using such squeaky-clean language.
The real-life Kurt and Brenda Warner served as co-producers for “American Underdog,” which was adapted into a corny but credible scenario by scripters David Aaron Cohen, Jon Erwin and Jon Gunn from “All Things Possible,” the memoir Kurt Warner co-wrote with Michael Silver. So it’s probably safe to assume that as authorized biographies go, this one has a fair amount of hagiography mixed in with its history. But the mix goes down very easily and leaves you with a pleasant buzz.