Everybody likes an underdog story. It is possible to tell someone about a competition or contest that they know nothing about, inform them that one side or individual is heavily favored, and most people will be compelled to side with the little guy. This tendency seems like it’s everywhere, cutting across demographics and even cultures as one of those truly universal human features.
When it comes to individual underdog stories, it is difficult to think of one more Hollywood-ready than the very real tale of former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner, who is the topic of the film American Underdog. After playing college football at the tiny, out of the way University of Northern Iowa, Warner was not selected during the NFL draft, was quickly cut from the only team that decided to give him a chance, and briefly turned to stock shelves in a supermarket before ending up playing for the semi-professional Arena Football League’s Iowa Barnstormers. All chances of fame and fortune on the gridiron had, by all appearances, passed him by.
Despite this decidedly humble beginning to his football career, Warner (Zachary Levi) would go on to lead the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl Championship in 1999 as a 28-year-old rookie, winning the Most Valuable Player awards in both the regular season and the Super Bowl game itself. This would be an amazing boast for any NFL quarterback of any pedigree, but for a man who went undrafted and played arena football, this achievement is simply incredible. Kurt Warner would play in two more Super Bowls and was eventually inducted into the Football Hall of Fame. To invoke a cliche, his story is so unbelievable that you couldn’t make a movie about it if it wasn’t true.
The scope of American Underdog goes well beyond Warner’s football successes and tells a robust story of his life. His quest to play in the NFL is ever-present, but the first half of the movie is much more focused on his relationship with his eventual wife, Brenda (Anna Paquin), and the general uncertainty that comes with being a newly-minted college graduate with minimal direction. Brenda has a child with a disability and their various struggles, financial and otherwise, make it far from certain that they will end up together. Instead of simply focusing on how Kurt Warner persevered in football, this film aims to portray how he persevered in life as a whole.
American Underdog has tons of heart. Its plot is already compelling on its face, but the filmmakers’ attention to certain aspects of Kurt Warner’s life really makes this an intimate story. When Warner is portrayed doing things like butting heads with his mother, bonding with Brenda’s son, or sulking about his failures, the viewer gets a real feel for the type of person he is beyond the chiseled image of a hero NFL quarterback. The film even shows him failing as a parent and husband and reflecting on those failures to be a better person. This is a brave film-making decision, particularly given that Kurt Warner himself was a producer, and the movie is so much better for it.
Another strong aspect of American Underdog is how the football itself is depicted. It’s difficult to really appreciate what day-to-day life is like for a professional athlete in practice or on the field, and this film gives a starkly accurate portrayal of that reality. Kurt Warner was known for having an incredibly fast passing motion, and the movie takes time to show how that skill was developed by way of his unique experiences, which is a nice touch.
This treatment reaches its crescendo in the final scenes of the movie, which feature Warner finally getting his shot and playing in his first NFL game. The filmmakers masterfully combine archival sports footage from that game with acted scenes to create a unique experience that is fantastically executed. It felt so genuine to me that I found myself expecting to see highlights of it when I turned on SportsCenter later that night. These aspects of the movie should go over supremely well with the many football fans who will end up seeing it.
There is plenty that could be criticized about American Underdog as well. The dialogue is definitely choppy and downright cheesy in its worst moments. It sometimes detracts from the otherwise genuine feel of the story. There are also several clumsy transitional scenes that exist just so one character can say, “I am saying and/or doing this right now just so what happens next will make sense.” These types of scenes, which tend to turn up in subpar movies, feel completely forced and bring viewers back to the reality that they are watching a scripted story.
The acting in the movie is a bit of a mixed bag. Levi’s portrayal of Warner is solid during the football-heavy portions of the movie, but he struggles with scenes where he has a lot of lines. Veteran actor Anna Paquin gives a strong performance as Brenda, which is good because her character really needs it for the film to be successful. The cast surrounding these two is composed of mostly cookie-cutter character archetypes that don’t require the actors to be spectacular.
American Underdog could easily have been a terrible film. Its movie-making fundamentals, such as the script and acting performances, are average at best. However, it makes up for these shortcomings with its gritty, unvarnished love story, an excellent ground-level portrayal of football, and the captivating true story that it tells. If the premise of this movie appeals to you at all, you should see it.
About American Underdog
Synopsis: 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.
Directors: Andrew Erwin, Jon Erwin
Writer: David Aaron Cohen
Stars: Zachary Levi, Anna Paquin, Hayden Zaller
Runtime: 1 Hour, 52 Minutes
Releases: December 17th, 2021
My name is Kevin and I have been writing about movies with GNN since January 2020. Some of my favorite films are Inception, Django Unchained, American Hustle, and Gladiator. I graduated with a B.A. in Philosophy from Arizona State University in May 2018. I am currently self-employed in e-commerce and live in Tempe, Arizona. In my free time, you can probably find me slinging spells in Magic: the Gathering or dusting off a retro video game console (Super Nintendo is my favorite).