Unlike Kurt Warner’s placement on the Mount Rushmore of NFL quarterbacks, his biopic, “American Underdog,” is unfortunately not on the Rushmore of sports biopics/dramas. Yes, Warner did have a great story going from bagging groceries in Iowa to a Super Bowl-winning quarterback and league MVP, but the story plays like a hokey faith-based movie that prays that it can hide that with commercial appeal. Directors Jon Andrew Erwin try their best to break out of the mold of the faith-based movie that they have carved themselves into, but in return give a biopic that is undercooked, or underthrown in the case of Warner.
The stars of the film cannot be given much blame for the film. Zachary Levi and Anna Paquin do their best as Kurt and Brenda Warner, but the scripts they are given are as infuriating as Warner’s inability to transition into the three-step dropback game of arena football. In the film, Warner unsuccessfully toes the line between self-confidence and self-pity while constantly reiterating that he just needs “one shot” in order to prove himself. It’s not that the sentiment doesn’t ring true — we all need that one shot to prove ourselves — but it’s the constant “woe is me” mindset that grows tiresome. It’s borderline whiney, and while it’s apparent that Warner wasn’t dealt the best hand in life, he says himself in the opening narration that only 1% of college players go to the NFL. And don’t get me wrong, the real Kurt Warner is a joy to watch on NFL Network as an on-screen personality, but let’s not kid ourselves. Warner isn’t Tom Brady, who would actually make a much better subject of a biopic being that he went from being a seventh-round draft choice that was body-shamed to the winningest quarterback of all time and arguably the greatest to ever do it. Warner did win an MVP and go to three Super Bowls (winning one), but he was also benched for Eli Manning in 2004. As a Giants fan, his contributions to the Eli Manning era are greatly appreciated, but I doubt anyone will claim Warner to be one of the legends of the sport; even as inspiring as his story is. All of this is to say that Warner constantly betting on himself is a great life lesson, but using the “I worked my butt off for this” line whenever something goes wrong is just irritating. Warner has the ethos of Uncle Rico, but I’d rather see Uncle Rico get his shot than this iteration of Kurt Warner.
Levi gives a fine performance as Warner, though it’s when he is on the field that the film feels “Hallmark”-y for lack of a better term. His throwing motion is not as bad as whatever this was, but it certainly didn’t look like Warner’s throwing motion (which they do show numerous times throughout) or one that any professional athlete uses. Levi is known for his charm, specifically in “Shazam!” a few years back, but that childlike demeanor he carries doesn’t feel like Kurt Warner. I can’t speak to what Warner is really like, but the wide-eyed enthusiasm that Levi portrays him with is not something I have seen when Warner has been on TV. And I realize that Levi’s job is to capture the spirit of the man he is portraying, but it still didn’t even feel like the same person.
Paquin really does her best to give life to the film. She showcases some heartbreaking scenes and is good as expected in those moments. But ultimately, her arc is fumbled away and lost in the second half of the movie. Levi and Paquin do share a tender “Rocky”-like moment at the very end of the film when Warner wins in his first start (pictured below).
The NFL scenes towards the end are the best things that directors Jon and Andrew Erwin capture. They do their best to emulate football, which is one of the hardest sports to choreograph. In all honesty, every sport is difficult to replicate, especially when basing it off on true events. But some fancy cuts (unlike some in the earlier stages of the film) that intertwine some real-life footage from the Rams 1999 season opener help assist in making it feel real. The jerseys and uniforms do look extremely awkward, almost resembling any of the background “players” in those Sleep Number commercials.
Another fault in the gameplan of “American Underdog” is the whole arena football subplot. For starters, why does Warner feel as though he is above arena football? When he is first asked about joining the new Iowa team, he basically scoffs as he holds out hope for the NFL. Any mob movie ever teaches you to not just take the first offer you receive, however, Warner was literally throwing cans of Campbell’s soup in place of a football during the graveyard shift at the most small-town grocery store imaginable. That’s like an actor scoffing at the notion of doing a crappy action movie in hopes of collaborating with Martin Scorsese. It’s not like one can’t exist with the other, Jesse Plemmons just did “Jungle Cruise” for God’s sake and was also in “The Irishman” and never has trouble finding roles in great films.
The arena football itself has some flaws. Like, did the filmmakers ever actually go to an arena football game before? I can’t blame them if not, but rest assured, none of the crowds are ever as into the game as they are in “American Underdog.” That’s not to suggest the crowd should have been dead, but you would have thought Mick Jagger was walking down the stage with the way people were reacting. Additionally, why does no one sweat in this movie? They’re playing football, not Wii bowling.
“American Underdog” is simply fine. It’s not God-awful, though perhaps I shouldn’t use that expression in regards to a faith-based film, but it also isn’t revolutionary or even memorable as a biopic. At least its under-two-hour runtime does speed by faster than Warner going through his reads or proposing. Yeah, Kurt Warner went from stocking shelves to winning a Super Bowl, but this movie doesn’t even focus on his career trending upward until the last half hour. Kurt Warner seems like a great guy, just watch the scene at the end of the credits, but his story doesn’t seem as important as he, or perhaps his family, thinks it is. And it’s more than just one yard short of the target it aims to hit.
“American Underdog” is opening in theaters on December 25.