Andrew and John Erwin have perfected the art of making faith-based biopics. I Can Only Imagine told the inspirational story of MercyMe singer Bart Millard, and I Still Believe was about Christian music superstar Jeremy Camp. The sibling filmmakers shift to sports for their latest effort, American Underdog, that focuses on former Rams quarterback Kurt Warner. This time around, they're making more of a play for the mainstream, keeping in just enough of the religious undertones to satisfy the faith audience without making them so prominent as to turn off general audiences looking for a football movie. That approach gives this unabashed crowd-pleaser a lot of crossover appeal.
Zachary Levi plays Kurt, a middling college football player. He dreams of someday getting into the NFL. More importantly, he dreams of being with Brenda (Anna Paquin), a single mother he meets in a country bar one night. At first, she discourages his advances, only to change her mind after seeing how kind he is to her children, one of whom is legally blind. Kurt gets a chance to try out for a big-league team, only to blow the opportunity. Another shot comes when he's recruited to play arena football. Despite initially thinking this pseudo-sport is beneath him, Kurt vows to give it his all.
As a sports drama, American Underdog works well. Kurt is often his own worst enemy. His professional setbacks – and there are several, including a stint working at a grocery store – are largely of his own doing. The movie shows how he learns something from each one of them, gradually working himself into the mindset he needs to finally get where he wants to be. Levi is excellent in the lead role, showing the various ways Kurt lets go of his pride, learns to accept criticism, and teaches himself how to take responsibility for his own shortcomings. He does this while also infusing the character with a natural charm that makes us care about what happens.
The faith-based side is perhaps wisely kept simple and straightforward. Brenda is a Christian who talks about how her faith has helped her through hardships. She also expresses that “God has something great” planned for her and Kurt. American Underdog has faith as a foundation, yet never beats the audience over the head with it. This is a picture about two people who happen to be Christians, without any of the sermonizing you get in religious fare like the God's Not Dead series. In other words, if you're looking for a message of faith, you'll find one; if not, what's here won't make it feel like you're being preached to.
Levi and Paquin work up a nice, easy chemistry together, making it easy to believe in the strong love between Kurt and Brenda. Some of the sports-related challenges are not on the field. For example, Kurt has to travel a lot when he plays, taking him away from Brenda and the kids for stretches of time. Those absences put a strain on their lives. Because American Underdog focuses on this sort of problem as much as on how hard it is for Kurt to get his big shot, the eventual triumph feels richer and more satisfying. It's both personal and professional.
Due to its desire to be inspirational, the film doesn't have a lot of gray area. It never explores any dark, depressive days Kurt Warner may have gone through during his struggles, nor does it get in-depth regarding the intermittent marital issues he and Brenda have to work through as he pursues his career dream. The Erwins don't want to make you worry too much about whether everything will be okay. Many movies of this sort take that approach, which is fine, provided you go in looking solely for uplift and not for nuance.
Otherwise, the football scenes are well-staged, the performances from Levi and Paquin are appealing, Dennis Quaid is solid as a Rams coach, and Kurt Warner's story is sufficiently interesting to keep you involved. American Underdog is a rousing drama about sports and family that sends you away feeling cheerful.
American Underdog comes to digital on Feb. 4, and DVD/Blu-ray & On-Demand on Feb. 22. The Blu-ray contains extensive supplementary material, starting with audio commentary from directors Andrew and Jon Erwin and producer Kevin Downes.
“Inspired” is a general making-of feature, with interviews from cast and crew. Zachary Levi discusses being cast in the role of Kurt Warner, and Warner talks about his satisfaction with that casting choice. Anna Paquin reflects on being in a faith-based movie despite not being particularly religious, as well as how the Erwins assured her that this was going to be an inspirational human story rather than something preachy.
“Making the Cut” looks at the editing of American Underdog, specifically how the football scenes were cut together and how input from focus groups helped shape the movie when it was running long. “A Coach's Faith” is about the ongoing relationship between Warner and Dick Vermeil, and “New to the Scene” explores how young actor Hayden Zaller was chosen to play Brenda's son.
“Meet the Champion” gives us more with Warner, commenting on his experiences and the movie's depiction of them. “Behind the Game” shows how the film meticulously recreated several key football games, right down to the individual plays. “American Underdog: Behind the Story” is another making-of, albeit one that mostly just summarizes the production in a few minutes.
Wrapping up the extras are about 17 minutes of deleted scenes, which are fun to watch even if they were understandably excised, and a theatrical trailer. All in all, the nicely-produced bonus features add to one's appreciation of the feature itself.
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out of four
American Underdog is rated PG for some language and thematic elements. The running time is 1 hour and 52 minutes.