[‘AMERICAN UNDERDOG’ Review] This faith-based football movie plays everything safe, resulting in a narrative fumble

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

AMERICAN UNDERDOG

Rating: PG, 132 minutes.
Directors: Andrew and John Erwin
Cast: Zachary Levi, Anna Paquin, Hayden Zaller, Ser’Darius Blain, Dennis Quaid, Chance Kelly, and Bruce McGill

Pocket presence. 

Pocket presence is a football term to describe a quarterback’s ability to stand his ground behind the line of scrimmage instead of scrambling to escape being tackled. Poised, he moves forward as the pocket collapses, keeping his eyes downfield to find an eligible target.

The term is used in the prologue to AMERICAN UNDERDOG as a young boy watches Super Bowl XIX. Joe Montana was commanding the San Francisco 49ers as its QB. The child sat in awe at how Montana did not buckle under duress. He overcame. He persevered.  

That boy was Kurt Warner. 

To any forty-and-older football fan, Warner’s name will be a familiar one. Going from obscurity to having the greatest season of any undrafted quarterback in NFL history, his life is the guy’s version of the Cinderella story. His glass slipper: the football pigskin he holds in his hands. His prince: a single mom raising two kids. 

Breaking into the NFL as a 26-year-old rookie with the St. Louis Rams, Warner’s story is less about his athletic prowess in throwing a football a great distance and more about his struggles in trying to fulfill a childhood dream. This is standard for most sports movies. AMERICAN UNDERDOG, on the other hand, is a faith-based sports movie. The advertising does a commendable job in masking this fact, making the average viewer think he’ll be watching a cookie-cutter football movie with flashy recreations on the gridiron and a hero who pulls himself up by his football cleats.

The pocket presence preamble described above offers the first of many valuable lessons about the measure of man and defining success. Football psalms, if you will.  

Brother filmmakers Andrew and John Erwin (of I CAN ONLY IMAGINE and I STILL BELIEVE) keep faith and football fifty-fifty in an effort to not have their film come across like a sermon or be too sports-centric. The result is a crowd-pleaser your parents are going to love. And that’s part the problem. By playing things too safe, the Erwins split the focus between adult Kurt (played by Zachary Levi) and his eventual wife, Brenda (Anna Paquin). Brenda is overburdened as a single mother of two with a legally blind son (Hayden Zaller). Kurt’s presence in her life is neither meant to save nor inspire. It is to share. Share in their respective struggles as they try to make a life of it. Sure, the rocky relationship is Lifetime Movie Channel of the Week worthy, but Levi and Paquin do their best to keep us invested. 

Still, Zachary Levi’s presence is a casting curiosity. For one thing, he’s fifteen years older now than when Kurt Warner made his pro debut. The SHAZAM! star and Paquin provide a higher level of acting visibility than the Erwins have had in previous films, which is added leverage in attracting audiences not at all interested in faith-based entertainment. To his credit and age notwithstanding, Levi looks the part of a quarterback better than Dwayne Johnson did in THE GAME PLAN or Jon Gries’ over-the-hill Uncle Rico (NAPOLEON DYNAMITE). 

Even for those who know Warner’s sports story – going from stocking shelves at an Iowa grocery store to commanding one of the greatest scoring offenses in football history (aptly nicknamed “The Greatest Show on Turf”) – it is Brenda’s less-publicized life that lifts the sports drama. Doing so means leaning into her family’s Christian faith, however.  

All of the couple’s setbacks build to Kurt’s arrival in the NFL, where he takes over for the injured starting quarterback, Trent Green, during the first 1999 preseason game. The final act speeds through the 1999 season as if in a two-minute offense and needing to score in a hurry. That was the style the Rams loved to play, and the Erwins go for broke in trying to duplicate. 

AMERICAN UNDERDOG is a feel-good sports story peddling sentimentality. It heaves a Hail Mary targeting middle-of-the-road audiences as it preaches old-fashioned values to give us a hallelujah ending. Sadly, it misses the endzone. 

Grade: C   

AMERICAN UNDERDOG is now playing in theaters nationwide.

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