During his last season before retirement in 2009, quarterback Kurt Warner was named the top role model in the National Football League on and off the field by a Sports Illustrated poll of NFL players. The fact that such a vote came from his peers and covered both of those settings should tell you all you need to know about the subject of American Underdog. Sure enough, a man like that has to have a story, and, by golly, does Kurt Warner ever have a doozy of one, the likes of which we may never see again.
Warner’s improbable ascent from a failed pro prospect circling the drain stocking grocery shelves for minimum wage to an NFL career boasting two MVP awards, a Super Bowl ring, and enshrinement into the Hall of Fame is the stuff of legend for football fans. Like a real-life The Natural, he owned the kind of story witnesses in the moment would clamor for the classic wish of “they should make a movie about this someday”, a call that has been answered with American Underdog.
Shazam!’s Zachary Levi stars as the gridiron field general we meet as senior year starter at the University of Northern Iowa. Kurt puts up solid numbers as a gunslinger, ruffles the feathers of his coach (Adam Baldwin, who knows Levi all too well) for not staying in the pocket, and has the NFL Draft circled on his calendar. The ambitious pigskin dream is in full effect.
Just when you think American Underdog won’t ever take off its helmet and pads, the narrative shifts to investing the bulk of its time showing the man off the field. With locked eyes, some boot scootin’ boogie on the dance floor, and a magical twinkle of Tracy Byrd’s wonderful god-fearing 1995 ballad “The Keeper of the Stars,” Kurt learns that country music isn’t so bad if it comes with fetching and divorced ex-Marine Brenda Meoni (Oscar winner Anna Paquin). His courtship to support her and win over her two children, including her visually-impaired son Zack (Hayden Zaller), becomes more of a point of pride than winning on the field.
The notion of proving you are good enough permeates this PG-rated family-friendly film from the Erwin brothers (I Can Only Imagine). The theme builds in layers, beginning with knowing why you love what you love internally. Once you reckon with yourself, then you can prove you’re good enough to others, be they professional coaches like Dick Vermeil (Dennis Quaid, passing The Rookie baton) or potential spouses like Brenda in areas outside sports. The goal is to “become” the successful ideals you seek, not just notch up achievements. Admirably so, family and faith become bigger victories than football in American Underdog.
With that moral construction, Kurt Warner becomes a better man than he is a football player. Later in the film when Kurt is lighting up the Arena Football League on the Iowa Barnstormers run by Jim Foster (the very nice addition of Bruce McGill), he drops the line of “winning doesn’t feel like winning unless you have someone to share it with.” That’s where all of composer John Debney’s musical triumph and the swift truck shots from cinematographer Kristopher Kimlin combine to pump with the game action, stepping back to show what really matters. The plot investment pays dividends for worthwhile drama.
The same compliments can be given for Zachary Levi’s very appealing lead performance. We all know he can swoon anyone and anything with his smile and charm. He always has that going for him and then you give him a handsome uniform. Yet, it’s how he channels the heavier traits and hardships beneath that perfect hair and stubble that will impress you. Seeing Kurt Warner the suitor, husband, and adoptive father truly wins more hearts than any touchdowns. Give great credit to Anna Paquin for driving those moments of emotion and sharing the relatable turmoil. She’s superb.
When you step back and think about it, American Underdog is already antiquated within the present sports zeitgeist less than 30 years after its events, which makes it all the more marvelous of a story to tell. The meteoric advancements in youth sports programs in the past twenty or so years have created a vast network of elitist ladders all selling (keyword there) the hope of turning professional pipe dreams into reality, even though the 1% window for professional positions has not expanded. Young athletes across numerous lucrative sports are groomed and accelerated with self-promoting checkbooks and competitive tutelage that is no longer a cottage industry.
With intensive paths like those, there is no such thing nowadays in sports as an unknown, anonymous, or self-made talent. The Kurt Warners of today or Williams sisters of King Richard would be identified at a younger age and not wallow in obscurity. Even the “amateurs” at the Olympics have received years of high-level coaching. Any late bloomer like Kurt today wouldn’t exist or would be buried behind a multitude of calculated prospects and manufactured pedigree. The improbable would become damn near impossible.
That’s why American Underdog carries the kind of story we may never see again. Kurt Warner is a special individual and, as history shows, more than his athletic prowess. Few stories this past quarter-century were riper for cinematic celebration and fewer hero worship subjects were more deserving. Go ahead and lionize this man. He’s the real deal and he earned it.